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#ScienceMatters: Extending the Science of Farming
On April 22nd, concerned citizens will gather in hundreds of cities to March for Science, reminding the world of the critical role that science plays in our lives. This week, the Harvest 2050 blog is featuring stories from the 2016 GAP Report® on the importance of science-based and information technologies for agricultural productivity and environmental sustainability. This blog focuses on the importance of extending that agricultural scientific knowledge and technology to the farmers who need it most.
Agricultural extension systems provide the link between public research and farmers, enabling them to quickly and easily understand and adopt innovation to benefit their business operations, the natural resources they manage, their families and the communities they live in.
The U.S. cooperative extension program was established by the Smith-Lever Act in 1914 and has become a model for many other countries. Working cooperatively, the federal government agencies involved in agricultural research, along with land-grant universities across the country and local county governments, built a solid structure for producing and sharing results and new practices.
These extension systems serve to keep farmers successfully involved in agriculture, providing advice, training, and support for rural entrepreneurship. A recent study demonstrated that since 1985, some 137,000 farmers would have left farming without the specific services of cooperative extension. 
Farmers’ social networks — trusted people in their home, community and business circles — play key roles in helping farmers adopt new information, practices and technologies. When it comes to helping farmers of all sizes and operations adapt to climate change, trusted sources of information combined with practical tools are needed to understand the impacts and opportunities to build resilience at the farm level.
Mobile Training Units Take Science to the Farmer
Accessing education and new agricultural innovation can be challenging for small-scale farmers in low-income countries who have limited connection to formal institutions and extension systems.
In many low-income countries, agricultural R&D and extension systems have not been a priority due to budget constraints and the lack of prioritization. But new approaches and models to extension are emerging and as countries build out their research and extension systems, greater participatory models are evolving to fill the extension gap.
A partnership between John Deere Foundation and Technoserve (an international development organization) is helping farmers in Kenya and Ghana learn the business and science of farming. The Mobile Training Unit (MTU) program uses video technology to bring agronomic information to farmers in remote communities that have limited access to extension services. The project combines agricultural and business training in several important value chains: dairy, horticulture and maize in Kenya and rice, sorghum, maize, cowpeas and soy in Ghana.
To reinforce the video presentations, Technoserve establishes demonstration plots where farmers receive continuing education in applying agronomic best practices. At the same time, the project staff works to build the capacity of financial institutions and input dealers to meet the needs of small-scale farmers, while creating linkages between the farmers and agricultural processors.
Launched in 2013, the project’s first phase reached roughly 20,000 farmers, surpassing its target by more than 40 percent, with an impressive 65 percent of farmers adopting some of the practices they learned through the MTU. By 2015, approximately 33,000 farmers had benefited from the MTU program, increasing their yields and generating up to $15.5 million in incremental revenue.
 Matt Swayne, “Land Grant University Programs Helped Keep Farmers on the Farm,” Penn State News Online, April 19, 2016).