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Extension Unplugged: Communicating Entomology to Amish and Mennonite Communities in Pennsylvania

rye cover crop after corn harvest

Karly Regan, a Ph.D. student at Penn State University, studies organic row crops and arthropod pest management in corn. In Pennsylvania she works in extension with Amish and Mennonite communities to help them apply modern entomological principles within their communities’ technological practices. Here, a rye cover crop grows in an Amish farm field after the corn harvest. (Photo credit: Karly Regan)

By Laura Kraft

Today, extension agents are more plugged in and wired than ever, producing YouTube videos, writing blogs, and even tweeting to reach their communities. Pennsylvanian extension agents are riding this new technological wave while at the same time keeping a foot in the past to best serve one of their largest constituent communities: Amish and Mennonite communities, also known as Plain Communities.

Laura Kraft

Laura Kraft

Karly Regan is one such facilitator. A Ph.D. candidate studying organic row crops at Penn State University, Regan participates in extension activities and field days through her advisor, Mary Barbercheck, Ph.D. In her own words, Regan says of working with Plain Communities: “It’s really fun to engage with people who are so excited about farming.” She explains that getting a college degree is not always an option for members of the Plain Community, so they are very open to receiving information about new equipment from extension agents. “The growers … are innovative and eager to try new things as long as they’re not violating their beliefs,” Regan says.

Pennsylvania grows a number of organic crops, the majority of which are fruit and vegetables, but they also grow one of the highest amounts of organic grain of any state. That’s where Regan steps in. Her research focuses on interseeding cover crops, which requires specialized mechanical equipment. At the field day, the Plain Community was very interested in the technology, and Regan explains that, after seeing an example using a tractor or other unaccepted technology, they will frequently build their own equipment to reach the same means.

As you can imagine, communicating with Plain Communities is also different. The Penn State extension community may reach out to a local church to ask it to advertise an upcoming field day. When presenting at these field days, extension agents are careful to avoid photographs including people, since photography is not a technology widely used by the Plain Community. “Instead, we use our technology to highlight what’s on farm without alienating the Plain Community in the process,” Regan says. “We want them to feel like they’re still a part of the farming community in the area.”

“It’s interesting to work with a community that’s not shifting to the internet and other technology,” says Regan. In order to communicate fact sheets, the extension office will mail out brochures, instead of merely posting them online, to do its best to include the community. And that work appears to be paying off. Whereas Plain Community farmers in general showed little interest in entomology in the past due to other, more dire issues with soil fertility and pathogens, members of the community have now started asking for more information at extension meetings. Proof that community building offline is still alive and well.

Learn more about Regan and Barbercheck’s work on Reduced-Tillage Organic System Experiments at Penn State.

Laura Kraft is a Ph.D. student at North Carolina State University and a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow. When she isn’t traveling the world, she spends her time making science more accessible through science writing and outreach. Email: ljkraft@ncsu.edu

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