By Ed Marston
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
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
"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
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
"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
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."
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