Monday, August 10, 2009

Understanding The Agricultural College

Today my department (the Department of Agricultural Economics at OK State University) held a retreat to help identify goals for the upcoming year. The retreat hosted a mix of teachers, researchers, and extension agents, though everyone is a mix of at least two of these. While listening to the various discussions, it made me think of a feature of ag colleges many in the animal advocacy community might not understand.

I am a teacher and researcher. My goal as a researcher is generally to discover knowledge. I hold no allegiance to any group or industry, which I hope is evident in my writings. Within the farm animal welfare debate, I am charged with addressing the important questions and seeking answers, regardless of who benefits or is harmed by the answer.

Those in extension, however, are very different. They are charged with acting as consultants to specific industry and groups. It is within their culture to treat those certain individuals as clients, acting careful not to offend or anger their clients.

Many in agricultural colleges hold research & extension appointments, or hold one of the positions and work closely with the other. It is for this reason agricultural colleges sometimes appear biased, but often they are merely performing the job they are assigned. Besides, these relationships often result in fruitful outcomes. Working with industry can often create an environment of mutual trust, encouraging industry to consider a point-of-view that they would not normally consider when provoked by an "objective" researcher. One could make the case that the improvements made by the United Egg Producers were the result of these close partnerships.

It has been rumored that some agricultural colleges have responded to the farm animal welfare debate by acting in their clients' interest. That is, some faculty have been told to adhere a set of industry talking points. I am unsure of the extent to which this is true, but if it is, I would like some readers to understand that this might not be as bad as it seems. By having these slightly slanted parties working with industries, they may make more progress than their more objective counterparts ever could.