Monoculture meets its match in North Dakota

  • John Gardner

    Ed Marston

Note: this article in one of several feature stories in a special issue about the West's land grant universities and their extension programs.

Carrington, N.D. - Half of all North Dakotans huddle in the fertile, prosperous Red River Valley, a stone's throw from Minnesota. But John Gardner happily does his agricultural research in central North Dakota, in a depopulated, struggling agricultural region that would discourage most ambitious professionals.

And while other ag Ph.D.s work at various specialties that earn them attention in their academic niches, Gardner, 38, says he is a "specialized generalist," responsive to local farmers rather than an academic discipline.

Academically, that makes him vulnerable. He and his fellow specialized generalists at the Carrington Research Center are not on North Dakota State University's tenure track. That is probably just as well. Their publications are likely to be about the experimental farming they do on their 1,200 acres, rather than about root viruses or other specialized subjects that typically earn researchers tenure and promotion.

To many scientists, the above would add up to a bunch of negatives. But Gardner believes agriculture is changing in ways that will put the Carrington Research Center he heads in the forefront of Great Plains agricultural research. He says the major change - decentralization - will also rescue agricultural extension agents.

"We spent the last academic generation centralizing agricultural research" in a relatively few specialized labs, he says. "Plows and herbicides and fertilizers work more or less the same everywhere" so there was no need to adapt the research to local situations.

Gardner says centralization was tough on farm-based labs like his and on extension agents, who are basically middlemen between university researchers and farmers. "Farmers soon learn to bypass the extension agent" and talk directly to the people in the larger labs who have done the research, Gardner says. That was a big part of the decline in extension's usefulness and prestige.

Now, Gardner speculates, agriculture is entering a cycle of decentralization. The newest technologies are biological and ecological tools, such as crop rotation and insects that devour pests. Unlike plows and herbicides and tractors, these tools will have to fit into rather than dominate the human and physical landscapes. Farmers will have to understand them intimately or they won't work. This need for local adaptation should work to pull research back onto the farms and make extension agents more useful.

But Gardner says extension will have a more important role than working with the new technology on specific farms. "Private crop consultants are filling that niche very successfully," he says.

"For example, at present we have entomologists in North Dakota telling farmers in certain counties: "Don't plant winter wheat," " because there are too many cocoons of the wheat midge in the soil, says Gardner. They say this even though wheat prices are high and the chances of a midge outbreak are small. But by giving these warnings, they're protecting themselves in case there is an outbreak.

What extension should be saying, Gardner says, is that so long as a region plants nothing but wheat, the crop is going to be plagued by all sorts of pests. The new extension service "will help farmers see the need to diversify their crops. Their job will be to help the community pull back and look at the bigger picture."

That larger perspective, he says, will be ecological and economic. The wheat monoculture can be eliminated only if farmers have a market for other crops. Farmers need to find new markets and create co-ops to process a variety of crops.

"Farmers used to be the food system. They'd grow the food, and then they'd take it to town and sell it. Now farmers have to support truck drivers, grocers, processors and everyone else who has picked up a piece of their old job," he says.

Extension's new job, Gardner says, will be to help farmers reclaim the food system.