Jason Henderson is associate dean in the College of Agriculture and director of Purdue Extension. In this role, Henderson leads the statewide public engagement and research-based education in agricultural and natural resources, 4-H youth development, health and human sciences, and economic and community development. As assistant vice president for engagement, Henderson provides leadership in universitywide initiatives designed to connect Purdue expertise and resources to statewide needs and form effective partnerships to grow the state economy and improve the quality of life for Indiana’s residents.
What are your general impressions of your first year at the helm of Purdue Extension?
Extension educators are people with passion for delivering educational programs. They’re here to serve the communities they live in and the people that they live with as neighbors, family members and friends.
Because Indiana communities are so varied in their economies, Extension has to be flexible and nimble enough to address local needs. Our challenge is to provide a consistent level of quality programming and, at the same time, reflect the individual needs of the local community.
What are the true strengths of Extension as we move into its second century?
Our connectivity to people and the connections that we have between university research and the local community contacts throughout Indiana. We are an educational institution. Our job is to bring local communities the information, resources and insights from Purdue University and our colleagues across the nation. Our job is to take that information — the research and innovation — and be its voice in communities. And not in technical jargon, but in layman’s terms about how to apply it to your communities, families and businesses both on the farm and on Main Street. So if we’re viewed as people who provide insight and help communities make better decisions, then I think that’s a positive for Purdue and for the state of Indiana.
Moving forward from our centennial celebration, what do you see as the key issues facing Extension?
Demographics and technology. With demographics, we’re going through the transition of the baby boomers. They’re getting ready to retire in the next few years, and we’re seeing this transition in Extension. At the same time, our communities are changing from a more rural to an urban demographic, but that’s been happening over 100 years.
Another aspect, which is a challenge but also an opportunity, is technology. Today we have smartphones, iPads and so much more. I don’t know what tomorrow will bring, but Purdue Extension has to continually adopt technology into our programing and understand how to reach and communicate with people. Social media is changing the face of how we communicate as a society, so we have to adjust in order to deliver impact and insights to our communities.
What tools will Extension need to be successful in the next 100 years?
Fundamentals. We need to communicate through basic writing and presentation skills, but at the same time, we need to adapt those skills to new mediums, such as webinars, online presentations, and YouTube videos, to deliver our message. How do we take the fundamental skills of communicating, interacting, and building relationships and use technology to do them better? We recognize that people are getting more information off a cell phone than on other mediums, so we have to be able to deliver our messages and communicate with them through that.
We also need to be able to do the fundamental research. As our experts in the field — our county Extension educators — continue to hone their skills and talents, we need to strengthen their connection with campus Extension specialists so they are able to participate in joint research projects, working in partnership to do research in different conditions across the state. For example, growing tomatoes is different in southern Indiana than in northern Indiana, so we have to have field trials all across the state. The educator’s role in doing that allows them to enhance their skills and expertise in the science of our business.
Extension specialist and historian Fred Whitford said Extension strengthened itself over the past 100 years by being a “people business.” Would you agree with that, and is that the key part of Extension’s continued success during the next 100 years?
Yes. When you talk about what differentiates communities in success, it’s all about people. Extension’s role is teaching people, often from the cradle to grave. We get them when they’re young through 4-H, teach them fundamental life skills through hands-on experiences, send them off to college for a few years, and then get them back as they rejoin our communities.
So our role as the arm of the university throughout Indiana is to bring that lifelong education to the communities and people. It’s about building personal connections and personal relationships. It’s about a trust that’s based upon the science of agriculture, health and human sciences, youth development, and economic community development and how we use that science to create insights that help a lot of people make better decisions.
What is the role of Extension in economic and community development?
Extension plays a major role in helping communities get ready for the innovations and technologies that are going to emerge. That’s been the role of Extension for over 100 years, and I think it will continue over the next 100 years.
In my previous job, when I looked at communities that grew faster than the average, they were communities with highly skilled people who had an ability to be entrepreneurial and adopt innovations. So how does Extension — by having community-based county educators working with our university — bring the innovations, the entrepreneurial activities, the new products, the new businesses out to Indiana’s communities? And how do we help those communities get ready for entrepreneurial endeavors?
With entrepreneurship, you need a support system and a community that’s receptive to taking a little bit of risk, because entrepreneurship is risky business.
You recently described yourself as being part of a “lost generation” in that you left roots on the farm to find your place in society. How has your own story helped prepare you in your role of leading Extension into the future?
I grew up in the ’80s in a rural community. My formative years were spent on a dairy farm in Iowa. The message at our kitchen table was that I’d better leave because there is nothing for me here. That’s not the message today throughout many corners of Indiana. We have to show people the opportunities that come from being entrepreneurial as they forge their own paths and make a job — not necessarily take a job — in many communities. It’s figuring out how to be entrepreneurial. How do you take the assets and resources that you have in the community and put them together in unique ways to build a business, to build a company that creates jobs and creates income while, at the same time, creating opportunities for families to be healthy in many different ways?
My brother and I never wanted to go back and run a dairy farm — 4:30 a.m. came early every morning. It was just a difficult time in the ’80s, and those were choices you had to make. A lot of youth are making those same choices today, but I think Extension is able to give them more choices. You can’t go back and do agriculture the same way you did in the past, but you can still be involved in a different way. So while I’m not involved in the dairy farm in terms of going out there and milking cows, I am still involved in agriculture and in helping people make better decisions so that the dairy farms can succeed.
How do we ensure that some of the best and brightest rural youths are able to return to their roots after they attend college?
We have to change the conversation not only regarding Indiana’s rural communities, but also about some of its urban corners. These are places where there are opportunities to create jobs, build a business and raise a family. I think people in Indiana need to be less humble and talk about the successes that we have. And Extension needs to talk about our successes more, too — to show how we’ve helped communities, families and businesses succeed and helped enhance the quality of life in Indiana.
Students go get an education — stretching their boundaries and learning different skills through different experiences. Then we have to recruit them to come back home so they can bring their connections, ideas and innovations back to the collection of communities that make up Indiana.
Henderson says creating more urban 4-H programs similar to this one in East Chicago, Indiana, where participants show off their artwork, is critical to Extension’s continued growth. Learn about other Extension success stories here.
How important are our inner city 4-H programs?
Crucial. Look at the changing demographics. Over the last century, Indiana has become more urban. There are fewer families that are tied to the farm. The 4-H program teaches essential skills, from leadership to life skills development. We have something to offer all youth who are growing up in more urban settings, and we’re making inroads there through after-school programs and connections with teachers in the classroom.
With increased standardized testing, we’re seeing that hands-on experiences which were a cornerstone of our education system, have shrunk. By working with 4-H through after-school programming, we can still offer youth hands-on experiences tied in with a school curriculum as a partnership.
We have some success stories — schools in Lake County that are experiencing better attendance on days when they have an after-school program. Some people learn best by hands-on experiences, and that’s what we offer through 4-H.
How important is it for Extension to establish corporate relationships?
It is tremendously important for us to have the support of the agricultural community and businesses across Indiana. When we talk about developing skills, basically these are skills needed by businesses. So we have to work in partnership with them to create the next generation of workers and, more importantly, leaders. We need to work with businesses, nonprofits, and state and local governments to identify the skills needed by the next generation of Indiana’s leaders. Purdue Extension is an institution that helps create, foster and nurture those leaders as they engage in lifelong learning activities. Through all these partnerships, we have seen tremendous support. Cargill and the National 4-H foundation were the original supporters in Lake County. And recently, the Dow Chemical Foundation began supporting a science coordinator position to help us bring a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) curriculum to various after-school programs and our 4-H youth. These are crucial, and we are fortunate to be able to provide some support for this.
You have said people in rural areas must “blaze a trail” like our Hoosier ancestors 200 years ago to discover new paths to prosperity. Can you elaborate?
As an economist, I look at risk-return relationships. If you want a higher return, you have to take on new risk. Often, that means doing things just a little bit differently than in the past. Finding that new innovation and adapting it to your business or creating a completely new industry in a community — that’s what I mean by blazing a new trail.
People are willing to pay for uniqueness because it enhances value. We know Indiana’s 92 counties are all unique, so how do we value their strengths while overcoming the barriers that limit their economic growth and development. For Extension, blazing that new trail means identifying what makes us unique and using that strength to build new opportunities, like we’ve been doing for the past 100 years. Today’s economy and the communities that we live in look a lot different than they did in 1914, so we just have to continue blazing new trails over the next 100 years.
How does the “pioneer spirit” play a role in the next 100 years?
I think we really do need that spirit that allowed our forefathers to cross the Appalachians and settle in the Ohio and Wabash River valleys. That type of spirit is still ingrained in us; we just have to use it in a different way. We don’t have as much open land as we had back then, but looking at new endeavors and taking innovations to build that next business or community, or to strengthen that family—those are things we can do. And that’s the pioneer spirit.
In each community, we can do something different to enhance that community, making it a place where people want to live, work and play; a place where our young adults want to raise their children and to grow old. We don’t know when the next opportunity will be, but we have to be pioneers and search for it. Often, if you’re first or second, you have a better chance of reaping success than if you’re at the back of the pack.
It sounds like you are really excited for the future.
I am! When I walk around campus, there’s amazing innovation and research being done. So how do we keep that from sitting in a laboratory? How do we commercialize that into a product or a new business and get it out into the community?
Part of our role in Extension is getting our communities ready for these developments, getting them tapped into Purdue so that those innovations and commercialized products call Indiana home. I get excited about that, because when you’re at the very beginning and just see the glimpses of it, you can see the possibilities.
We have to use the leadership we bring through Extension along with the partnerships and connections we have across the state to help move those innovations through the pipeline and create an Indiana where people want to live, work and play.