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As people turn to the soil, they'll need the help extension programs provide

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 9, 2009 - Over the last century, America watched its marketplace change from local to national. Big box stores pushed mom & pop shops aside. Unique local restaurants fell victim to snazzy corporate chains. Bright lights and catchy advertising promise convenience and consistency, often at the expense of nutrition and taste. Bigger became better.

But not so quietly any more, a consumer movement is gaining momentum, and society is showing trends of coming full circle, back to local markets.

More and more baby boomers -- and their children -- are seeking self-sufficiency and individualism. That can be as simple as starting a victory garden in the backyard or raising chickens that taste like grandma served at Sunday dinner. More and more folks are retiring to the country, and they're hungering for information about producing and marketing on a local scale.

Even before America's economic downturn, there was a growing emphasis on a new sustainable economy that focused on locally based products. Think farmers markets.

Remember the fad of boutique breweries and wineries? Big corporate brands did their best to swallow up the little fish. Now, there are too many of the smaller fry. While sales of big national brands such as Bud and Miller grew by less than 2 percent in 2007, market share for America's more than 1,400 craft brewers grew more than 17 percent. Today, according to one estimate, one in 15 beers purchased in supermarkets is a boutique brew.

A decade ago, fewer than 50 wineries dotted Missouri's landscape. Today, the Missouri Grape & Wine Board lists 84 wineries.

More and more, consumers are breaking the corporate mold, in search of better quality, better taste, better nutrition. Big city restaurants search for rural suppliers who produce a healthier brand of meat. It's even happening in the corporate world, as chains like Chipotle Mexican Grill seek suppliers who raise hogs and chickens in a more humane environment.

The result? Less use of antibiotics, better taste and climbing profits.

As more and more people get back to their roots, they're searching for "how-to" information. In the past, University Extension provided much of that information to millions of rural folks. Generations of farm families grew up raising livestock and crops in 4-H and Future Farmers of America. Along the way, they learned leadership and the importance of sustainable agriculture.

The economic downturn has forced Missouri to look at cutting back services. The decisions are gut wrenching. But one caution: Now more than ever we need a strong University Extension program to assist local production and the growing local markets.

The extension service was an early target of cuts, but supporters seem to have saved the day - this time.

An old business rule of thumb says that in tough times, advertise more. In the same vein, as more and more people return to their roots and learn lost arts of self-sufficiency, Missouri will benefit from the 114-county extension service that provides the knowhow and the "how to."

Russ Kremer, President, Missouri Farmers Union, has a farm in Osage County.