Dale Monks still recalls the day when Patrick Doyle, a beloved Middle Tennessee State University biology professor, gave his students the lowdown on what would likely prove to be the biggest challenge of their careers.

For Monks, now an Alabama Cooperative Extension System crops physiologist and Auburn University agronomy and soils professor, Doyle’s observations not only made a lasting impression but also supplied him with one of the deepest, most invaluable insights into how the world, particularly farming, would work in the 21st century.

The big challenge, as Doyle described it, was electronic data, not only how to manage but also how to make sense of all the data pouring out of computers and other electronic devices  at increasingly accelerating rates.

“That was more than 30 years ago and he was dead on,” Monks said.

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Managing the reams of information pouring out of laptops, tablets and smartphones has not only proven to be a major career challenge for Monks but also for the farmers he serves.  In fact, within the last quarter century, he has had a ringside seat observing how these trends have altered the entire farming landscape.

Farming is increasingly about data management, not only collecting and managing the immense volumes of data associated with every facet of farming but also determining how all of it interrelates.

These trends are also calling on Extension professionals to reassess the ways they interact with farmers.

Quick response to crises, whatever they happen to be — insect infestations, prolonged drought, foliar disease stemming from excessive moisture — has always defined Extension work, especially for grassroots professionals such as Eric Schavey, a regional Alabama Extension agent based in the Tennessee Valley.

“As regional agents, that should be about 75 percent of our jobs,” Schavey said.

Like most Extension professionals, Schavey has plenty of challenges on his professional plate— managing his extensive corn variety trials, for one — but when a farmer is in need, his first impulse is to drop everything and respond immediately.

“If the data from one of my corn variety plots is skewed, I write myself a note, but when a farmer’s crop is skewed that’s taking money out of his pocket and food off his table,” he says.

Quick response will remain as critical as ever for Schavey and other Extension professionals.  But Monks, drawing on those old lessons from his biology professor, contends that he and other Extension professionals will be held to an even higher standard in the future.