MEAS-RELASER Spring Institute

MONTEVIDEO – Agricultural extensionists, researchers, economists, and Ministry of Agriculture representatives from across Latin America converged in the capital of Uruguay last week to deepen their understanding of new concepts on extension and above all share experiences across country lines. Sixteen delegates from almost every Latin American country from Mexico to Chile took part in the 2014 Spring Institute hosted by the USAID-funded Modernizing Extension and Advisory Services (MEAS) Project led by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the Latin American Network for Rural Extension Services (RELASER), in collaboration with FAO[1], IICA[2] and PROCISUR[3].

The MEAS project aims to "support the transformation and modernization of extension systems, so they can play a key role in improving the income of farmers while improving the quality of life of the rural population, especially women." MEAS has been working in recent years on several global initiatives and is keenly interested in continued engagement with policy makers in Latin America.

RELASER seeks to promote the recovery of the role of rural extension as part of innovation systems, with the ultimate aim of improving the quality of life of the rural population. The network is present in most countries of the region and has spawned several national forums that aim to strengthen extension systems at the national level.

During the intensive five-day workshop from September 23-October 3, 2014, everyone joined in the discussion to learn ways to integrate practices at the financial, social, and political levels to lift up family farming in rural Latin America, affect agricultural policy at the country level, and encourage stronger networks among movers and shakers in extension policy.

Participants took a hold of the opportunity to investigate how neighboring but also far-off countries are addressing ever-changing challenges of smallholder rural farming, especially in recently post-conflict places like Colombia and Guatemala.

Dumar David Guevara of Colombia shared, the week brought “a place to expand knowledge, it was a space for reflection,” and one idea gleaned from the workshop he foresees utilizing is “to propose a more participator extension scheme” in Colombian extension practices.

All aspects of the Institute centered on the opportunity to strengthen and modernize extension service provision in the participants’ home countries. Participants stood at various levels of efficiency, which cultivated healthy dialogue among policymakers, policy influencers, producers, and institutions. Monday started off with the question, “How do you define extension?” As expected, answers ranged. However, they all shared a common core and objective: extension is pluralistic, and if it is to inform, assist, and serve the demands and needs of farmers, good practices must be adopted at the country, local, and individual level, and then only achieved through the cooperative work of many actors.

As Leticia Rojas Araya, Chilean representative, explained, healthy practices embrace “the integrality of the extension; we cannot consider the productive factors without incorporating the human, cultural and environmental.” Only then might a sustainable and improved quality of life for producers be possible. “I gained new knowledge related to extension and the qualities of extension, which helped me to reflect on how the model operates in Chile and to identify opportunities for improvement that can be implemented in the short term.”

Going from there, participants worked in groups and listened to colleagues from each organization and several key university institutions in Latin America present key methods and experiences that are strengthening extension throughout the world. John Preissing, FAO Representative in Peru, worked with participants to realize the crucial elements of the New Extensionist, the man or woman assisting smallholder farmers to acquire new knowledge and work together in more effective ways to increase farmer incomes. Further on, Paul McNamara, Project Investigator of MEAS, presented various methods and lessons throughout the week, one of which explored financing extension sustainably.

“I especially appreciate the time leaders from each organization took to meet with our group of participants and to socialize with us as we worked on our training course,” said Paul McNamara. “The time given by IICA researchers and staff to explain some of their activities related to extension and family farmers in Uruguay is especially appreciated; all of these contributions were of the highest quality.”

The Institute was a prime time for the open dialogue amongst country representatives committed to various agricultural, governmental, and cooperative groups, essential for the exchange of ideas that moves people for change. “It was inspiring and insightful. To realize that there are similar concerns and goals as well as interesting differences in program delivery was quite valuable. I believe that the workshop helped to forge learning networks between the Latin American extension professionals, which will serve their countries well in the future. Bringing MEAS and RELASER together shows the power of the expertise of MEAS with the networking strength of RELASER for the betterment of extension programs in the region,” John Preissing of FAO shared.

"Gathering such a high level group of people that is directing extension systems in our region, sharing experiences, tools, approaches and identifying how to collaborate in the future was a privilege. The Institute brought great partners for RELASER and has definitely strengthened the network." María Isabel Paredes, RELASER.

[1] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

[2] Instituto Interamericano de Cooperación para la Agricultura

[3] Programa Cooperativo para el Desarrollo Technológico Agroalimentario y Agroindustrial del Cono Sur