Revive agricultural extension services
Atrip made last week through some agrarian communities in Niger State and the speculative thoughts that subsequently ensued promptly reminded me of the good old days of agricultural extension services in Nigeria. Relying on the climatic patterns of this region in addition to the cultivation practices among farmers, guinea-corn should ordinarily have attained maturity by the time the rains are over. This notion was, however, deflated when I recently traveled through GawuPaiko-Lapai-Agaie road; just about three weeks after the last rain. Many stalks on several farmlands have neither grown to maturity nor bore any ears of corn.
Although I ruled out the proposition that the rains stopped prematurely, I thought of few factors that could have led to the situation. Late planting, poor quality of seeds and effect of diseases on plants were some of the reasons suggested by my mind even though I never had any professional training in soil or crop science. If any of these factors were plausibly responsible at all, the services of agricultural extension workers, I felt, could have averted it.
With the increased farming activities witnessed during the 2016 and 2017 farming seasons, there can be no better time to revive the services of agricultural extension workers than now. This is with a view to educating and raising the productive capacity particularly among local farmers. For agriculture to improve in Nigeria, local farmers must have to be taught value-added farming techniques in place of traditional practices. The friendliest approach to doing this, in my opinion, is through agricultural extension workers. I also do not think it is wise to be spending so much on workshops and conferences for agricultural officers without extending the gains of such knowledge-updating sessions to farmers.
Increased agricultural productivity at the rural farm level would, thus, require basic agricultural education particularly the extension type that will help move millions of farmers from outmoded cultivation methods to progressive farming systems. The activities of agricultural extension workers are usually programmed to help farmers to be aware of and analyse their present challenges in order to find solutions to them through the practical guide of an agricultural extension officer.
An agricultural extension worker has many roles. He is an adviser, a technician, a consultant, a change agent and a confidante to every farmer in his area of coverage. He acts as a contact man between farmers and agricultural development institutions including government MDAs. He links farmers with agricultural resource centers where they can source farming inputs just as he connects farmers with financial institutions that grant credit facilities for farming.
Agricultural extension workers also help government and agricultural research institutes to implement agricultural policies as they relate to innovations in plowing, planting, weeding and harvesting of crops. Through agricultural extension services, farmers learn the best ways to store and preserve farm produce. Agricultural extension officers also expose farmers to varieties of seeds including hybrid. These farmer education activities add up to raise the living standard of farmers. This is why agricultural extension services have remained one of the critical strategies for rural development in many countries of the world.
I grew up to appreciate agricultural extension workers and their services because my late elder brother, Malam Ibrahim Ndagi, worked and retired as an agricultural extension worker. As a young boy, I liked pictures which got me attracted to him because I used to see him with posters that carried pictorial sketches and inscriptions in Nupe language. The posters were meant to educate farmers on planting methods, fertiliser application, harvesting techniques, seed preservation as well as application of pesticide to crops. The posters were produced and supplied at that time by the National Agricultural Extension Research and Liaison Services (NAERLS) of the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria.
As an extension officer, my brother lived in the rural farming community of Sallawu, a village that is about 10 kilometers along AgaieKatcha road in Niger state. Between 1972 and 1974, our father would ask me to ride on my small bicycle to take every official letter that came from the Ministry of Agriculture, Minna (the then headquarters of Niger Province) to hm. I once took such a letter (an invitation to attend one-month training) to my brother and so he decided to return to Agaie with his wife on his white-painted bicycle. About three kilometers on our way back; his bicycle had a flat tyre. One kilometer further into our journey, my bicycle chain also cut.
My brother had a demonstration farm at the village. I went to the farm with him on the few occasions that I spent some days with him there. He used it for giving farmers practical field demonstrations of appropriate improved techniques. The collapse of Agricultural Development Projects (ADPs) in many states and the Project Coordinating Unit (PCU) of the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development saw the eclipse of agricultural extension services in many parts of Nigeria.
Agricultural extension service (or farmer education) is an educative and informative system through which farmers are assisted to improve upon their farming methods and techniques with a view to increasing production and income. This is usually achieved through organized exchange of information and deliberate transfer of skills from trained agricultural officers to rural farmers. Experts in agriculture regard agricultural extension as a process of integrating indigenous and derived knowledge, attitudes and skills, to determine what is needed, how it can be achieved, what local co-operation and resources can be mobilized to overcome particular obstacles.
The relevance of agricultural extension in the development of agriculture in Nigeria and elsewhere cannot be over-emphasised. The eradication of agricultural development challenges can significantly be achieved through extension service approach if the role of extension workers is properly conceived and effectively administered. As we recommend its revival, we also suggest that the renewed agricultural extension services should (if possible) be expanded to cover women in agriculture, irrigation as well as produce processing and marketing.
To ensure sustainability of agricultural extension services, the welfare of extension workers must be catered for. Field extension should be made attractive so that youths will be willing to make career and living out of it. Agricultural extension services could be commercialized to guarantee their survival. May Allah (SWT) guide government at state and local levels to practically support the revitalization of agricultural extension services, amin.