A Philosophical Approach
Date posted: August 6, 2012
Deanna Osmond carries on the Extension traditions of improving lives and using science to help people make informed decisions.
To Dr. Deanna Osmond, the terms “Cooperative Extension” and “land grant” are synonymous.
“As Extension specialists, we take the most current information that has been developed through research and translate it into practice that improves people’s lives,” said Osmond, professor of soil science and department Extension leader. “To me, that’s what the land-grant mission is.”
With offices in each of the state’s counties and with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, Extension reaches all North Carolina citizens. Specialty areas range from agriculture to youth development, with new programs developed regularly to meet the evolving needs of North Carolina’s rural and urban communities. Programs are available to people of all ages and from all walks of life.
The words of Ira O. Schaub, North Carolina’s first Extension youth-development agent, are as true today as when he wrote them in 1952:
“Extension work is a philosophy. … And the satisfaction that one gets in seeing the improvement in the standard of living of the people served is the most satisfying remuneration that anyone can experience.”
Osmond joined North Carolina Cooperative Extension in 1992 as a water quality specialist. In 1997, she became part of the Neuse Education Team, an initiative through which Extension worked to reduce nonpoint source pollution and better protect the river and estuaries.
“We were hired as a team, and we worked with the agricultural sector, the urban sector, elected officials, government agencies, citizens … the whole gamut of Extension’s stakeholders,” she said. By the time the program dissolved in 2011, some members of the Neuse Education Team and county Extension agents had trained more than 4,000 farmers in better nutrient management applications, and another team member developed a highly recognized and effective urban stormwater program.
“One of the things I most enjoy about Extension is the contact with our clients and the diversity of opportunities to deliver science-based information to many different stakeholders,” Osmond said. “Oftentimes, in the environmental world I work in, different factions have different opinions, so it’s really nice to be able provide credible information to help them make informed decisions.”
Research also is a big part of Osmond’s environmental work and, to her, research and extension are one and the same. “I see the research and extension missions being indistinguishable,” she said. “If I don’t have credible research to extend, then I don’t have an Extension program.
“The piece that is missing for most scientists is the translational piece. How do you go from science to implementing what you’ve been researching into practice or policy? Extension provides the structure that allows us to do that. It provides the missing link.”
Some of Osmond’s research has been used as the scientific basis in the creation of environmental regulatory tools required by the state. Under the Neuse Rules, she said, farmers were required as a group to show that they had reduced nitrogen use by 30 percent. She worked with an interagency team to develop a tracking and accounting tool “and provide data from research to put into the tool to make it more credible,” she said.
“I keep coming back to that word – credible – because it’s a critical part of our jobs to use science to help people make the most informed decisions,” Osmond said.
In addition to training farmers as part of the Neuse Education Team, Osmond helped administer training to Extension agents. This train-the-trainer model, she said, is most effective because stakeholders receive the information from local, trusted deliverers.
The most gratifying part of being an Extension specialist, Osmond said, is seeing that she has made a difference in people’s lives.
Her work transcends North Carolina, to the national and international levels. In the spring, she led a national Environmental Protection Agency webinar focused on how to use public and private resources for conservation practice implementation to do a better job protecting water quality.
And her work in other countries over the years has proven to be eye-opening. “I’ve worked overseas, and one of the huge differences between the United States and other countries, whether they’re developed, like in Europe, or developing countries in Africa where I’ve worked, is that Extension has made a profound difference in the lives of farmers here in the United States,” she said. “Those structures don’t exist or those services are privatized in other countries, and this oftentimes reduces the capacity to translate research into actual practice or knowledge for farmers.”
She cites the Master Gardener Program, 4-H and Family and Consumer Sciences as particularly exemplary in carrying out Extension’s mission in North Carolina. “Of course, there are many Extension specialists and agents all over our state who touch a lot of people’s lives,” Osmond said.
Extension also fuels progress by uniting multiple disciplines to work together on a single, important issue, such as the current local foods initiative, she said.
“We’re in a unique position to work across sectors and to serve an incredibly diverse clientele,” Osmond said.
“What I’m really proud of is being able to bring all of these lessons to bear from both the state and national levels into a coherent framework for all of my clients,” she said. “It’s very rewarding work.”
-photos by Becky Kirkland