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A Conversation with Dean Benjamin Houlton

By Katie Baildon
  • Cornell Cooperative Extension
  • Department of Global Development
  • Ecology and Evolutionary Biology
  • Agriculture
  • Global Development
  • Environment
  • Climate Change

In this episode of “Extension Out Loud,” a podcast by Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE), Benjamin Houlton, the Ronald P. Lynch Dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, shares his journey and his vision for carrying forth Cornell’s Land Grant mission in New York state.   

From his midwest agricultural heritage to his most recent faculty position at the University of California Davis, Dean Houlton leads listeners through the personal and academic journey that brought him and his family to Ithaca, N.Y.  

“If you shake my family tree, you get dairy farmers falling out of every branch,” Houlton told “Extension Out Loud” hosts Katie Baildon and Paul Treadwell. “And while I didn't grow up on a farm, I did spend time on family farms as a kid, and practiced milking cows by hand.” 

Houlton is as inspired by big questions like “how does DNA work” as he is by practical solutions that improve lives, such as CCE’s efforts to connect families with meals during the COVID-19 pandemic. His approach to leadership begins with collaboration, coordination, and deep listening. And he aims to center those values in his approach to addressing the climate crisis, engaging in antiracist work, and building a more resilient future--which he said, aligns perfectly with CCE’s mission.   

“Humility and responsibility, that is what CCE is all about in my experience. It's about helping farmers. It's about helping people who don't have access to food. It's about creating a more equitable and safe future for everybody.” 

The conversation with Dean Houlton kicks off the latest season of Extension Out Loud, “Leading Through Extension” which will feature key CCE voices discussing their approaches to extension work and how history – and this past tumultuous year — are shaping our path forward.  

Listen on:


PAUL TREADWELL: Welcome to Extension Out Loud, a podcast from Cornell Cooperative Extension. I am Paul Treadwell.

KATIE BAILDON: And I'm Katie Baildon.

PAUL TREADWELL: This is a new series that we're starting up called Leading Through Extension. And for our first conversation, we talked with Ben Houlton, who is the new dean of the Cornell College of Agricultural Life Sciences.

KATIE BAILDON: He joined us at Cornell at the end of last year. And we talked with him about his approach to his work and how it relates to the work that's happening across New York state with Cornell Cooperative Extension.

PAUL TREADWELL: And this conversation follows up on a conversation we had last season with the previous dean of the Cornell College of Agricultural Sciences, Kathryn Boor.

KATIE BAILDON: Absolutely. Some synergies between those two episodes.

PAUL TREADWELL: It'll be interesting to track his progress. And hopefully, we can have him back sometime in the future to chat.

KATIE BAILDON: And if you stay tuned into the series, Leading Through Extension, we'll be having many conversations with folks in leadership roles throughout extension, to talk about their different approaches to extension work and some of the challenges that they faced, especially in the past year.

PAUL TREADWELL: So, here is the dean.

BEN HOULTON: I'm Ben Houlton. I'm the Ronald P. Lynch Dean of the incredible College of Agricultural and Life Sciences at Cornell.

PAUL TREADWELL: Well, welcome. It's great to have you with us. So what can you tell us about your journey that brought you back to Cornell in some ways?

BEN HOULTON: The journey starts with a legacy in agriculture that dates back multiple generations in my family. And I say, if you shake my family tree, you get dairy farmers falling out of every branch. And while I didn't grow up on a farm, I did spend time on family farms as a kid, and practiced milking cows by hand. And my dad and his brothers grew up in poultry and grain distribution with my grandfather in Wisconsin.

So with that being said, I've always been captivated by the world around us. By people, by the planet, by food. And as I engaged in my undergraduate degree at the University of Wisconsin-- another kind of incredible land grant-- I thought I wanted to explore fisheries, because I loved fishing so much as the kid. I was so passionate.

And then, I started exploring a couple of classes in chemistry of all things. And I was just so taken by chemistry and just thinking about the building blocks of atoms, and elements, and how it ultimately gives rise to the complexity of the life support systems around us. So as I started engaging in active research, looking at farms as part of the landscape, and thinking about agriculture as this incredibly important pathway through which we can create a resilient world, I then realized that I was lacking in some more fundamental tools to explore nature, and that would be mathematics.

So I got into engineering at Syracuse University and spent a couple of years in upstate New York and then one year at Cornell before going over to Princeton to complete my Ph.D. in ecology and evolution. And that took me out to the West Coast to Stanford, and then UC Davis. There, I started becoming even more immersed in the power of agriculture as a weapon for human nutrition, for environment, for carbon farming, and all these things.

And then, I found myself taking on some leadership positions there, working with the state on climate policy and leading a very large research institute, which was bringing together farmers, people in agriculture, economists, doctors, lawyers, all the different disciplines to chart a pathway to modern-day solutions. And that also allowed me to start mixing with the experiment station, where I had an appointment at UC Davis and Cooperative Extension.

And I've taken advantage of a lot of Cooperative Extension facilities throughout the state of California in my own research endeavors. So here I am at Cornell, now, again, without a predetermined perspective on becoming a dean. But it felt like a hand-in-glove opportunity that I just could not turn down.

KATIE BAILDON: I'm wondering if you can explain to us how you envision your role as dean of CALS, and how you envision your role as CCE as the dean?

BEN HOULTON: Being the dean of CALS, you realize that you are a servant to society. It's much bigger than a normal deanship when you start thinking about the vast array of stakeholders in New York and globally and this incredible land grant mission, which, at Cornell, dates back to the founding university in 1865 and Ezra Cornell's vision for a place where anyone could find study in any discipline.

And so I entered the deanship thinking about the core values I've trying to cultivate over the years, those of collaboration and cooperation, deep listening, engaging in practical solutions for the benefit of people. We have this capacity to go from the most basic breakthroughs in science to food trucks, working with cooperative extension that are helping support citizens in Buffalo who don't have access to food during a pandemic.

And so for me, it's the great translator. That is where I feel this huge opportunity and sense of responsibility. And if there was any words that I think motivate me, it's humility and responsibility. And that is what CCE is all about in my experience. It's about helping farmers, it's about helping people who don't have access to food, it's about social systems, it's about creating a more equitable and safe future for everybody that's more resilient. And so the mission of CALS cannot be picked apart from the mission of CCE. They are one and the same.

PAUL TREADWELL: In looking at the multiple crises that we're currently facing, what do you see as the most urgent issue that CALS faces, that Cooperative Extension faces in serving the folks of New York state?

BEN HOULTON: Yeah, that's A super challenging question. As you put very well there, there is many fold risks that are conflated. COVID and a pandemic, climate change, which is disrupting weather patterns, making it more difficult to grow food in a predictable way. We have environmental spillovers that the state is concerned about, and we have to really think about the future of agriculture and not only solving the food challenges that we have and continuing to support a society.

But how do you do that in a way that also starts to appreciate the other benefits that agriculture brings to the table? And how do we monetize those benefits? So that's an incredibly important challenge in and of itself.

But if I were to pinpoint one thing that I think we need to overcome of, it's the barriers to discourse and dialogue in society, which ultimately hold back our ability to solve problems. I am a huge believer in bridge building and thinking of an optimistic future together, collectively. And so we have to learn how to communicate through our differences and appreciate all that agriculture does for society.

It's easy for folks to say they're environmental and kind of like wave their finger at agriculture. And we have our agricultural industries which also are underappreciated for all the values they're bringing to the table. But I would say, agriculture is the biggest part of our global environmental system. To pick that apart is a mistake.

And in New York, we're an incredible position to really thread the needle through that space where agriculture and environment operate as one unit. And farmers know this. They've been doing this forever.

It's just that I think now is the time to educate public more broadly on the value of agriculture in the context of environment, and climate, and all the challenges we need to solve. But just going back, I do get concerned when I see a lack of data being used to explore what's really happening. And I think that's a central challenge that we all need to confront.

KATIE BAILDON: So that ties really well into a couple of other questions that we had for you. One of them is, CALS has a commitment to anti-racism. And I'm wondering how that fits into the overall vision you have for CALS and for CCE?

BEN HOULTON: Racism is a systemic issue. It's so ingrained in the fiber and fabric of our society, dating back to what some might call the original sins of slavery and our interactions with tribes as we started to form the land grant. And so I think it's a real opportunity.

I think it is a time to be both aware, and unabashed, and unafraid to explore those questions while seeking out solutions that really mobilize a much more diverse agricultural workforce, diversity in environment. Environmental justice and climate justice come up a lot in conversations. And I would say that one point of interest that we're seeing in CALS is, how do we empower Black farmers in New York state with intentional programs, and our small farm program, which is led by Extension, is really doing a lot there to try to sort through, first, where are our Black farmers in New York state, and how can we start to support them as a community, and how can we start to really mobilize solutions?

And ag in markets is also very interested in this. I'm part of a task force that's been developed on behalf of the governor to really explore that question. So everything we think about needs to be thought through the lens of, how can we elevate those who are most disadvantaged, who have been underserved in the past, and create intentional programs. It helps us to understand how we can undo some of the unfortunate circumstances we see.

But racism is something we all need to stand up against. And anti-racism is really critical for CALS as we continue to explore how we can meet the land grant mission, which is about all people. So we have to think about the full diversity of people who are out there that we can support.

PAUL TREADWELL: The thing that keeps coming back to me is, it's all very intersectional. And we're looking at agriculture as a key function of society, at the same time, we're looking at issues of racism, of climate change, and untangling that knot and finding a thread to start with seems to be a challenge that we all face, which brings me to ask you about some of the work that you've done. I want to mention volcanoes and carbon capture, and let you take it from there.

BEN HOULTON: My research program-- I was always fascinated by the planet, and agriculture being this incredibly important aspect of the functional attribute of our planet that continues to allow human society to evolve and support our economy. A lot of people aren't really aware that back when Cornell was founded in 1865, something like 60% to 70% of the United States workforce was agrarian. Today, that's 4%.

And that's an incredible mission accomplished on one hand, of how the Green Revolution, and the land grants, and Cooperative Extension continue to allow for more innovations that were more efficient. And now, we have this incredible society which is underpinned by that food system. That said, the challenge of climate is enormous.

Billions, and billions, and billions of tons of carbon dioxide have accumulated in our atmosphere through fossil fuel combustion, largely, and to an extent, land-use change that dates back to the Industrial Revolution. And we have to find ways to pull CO2 out of the air while radically cutting emissions in order to avoid the most dangerous impacts on people, and the planet, and our food system in the future.

To secure our food system requires securing carbon. So I started working on this challenge and realized that there was a lot of dust produced by the mining industry each year. And specific kinds of rocks that are volcanic in origin have the capacity to act as a sponge for carbon dioxide.

If you take the rock dust, which, again, is a byproduct and not being used by the mining industry, and start putting that into the soil-- and now, I am working on 100 acres of soil carbon experiments where we're adding the rock just to the soil, and the rock does have many qualities that we really want in the soil to create a healthy soil environment. It has calcium, magnesium, potassium, silica, elements that we know are fundamental to our supply chains, and it has a lot of micronutrients, which are becoming diminished in our CO2-rich world.

We're finding that our crops have fewer micronutrients and vitamins to support animal agriculture and human health. So this study is now demonstrating how getting this rock dust accelerates a reaction that converts the rock dust into a carbon capture device that can allow that carbon to stick around for hundreds of thousands of years so that it no longer interferes with and causes global climate change. So we believe this is one part of a portfolio of solutions that are needed.

And I always think it's important to mention, we have to radically cut emissions globally through fossil fuel combustion. Without that, this carbocation that we're doing in agriculture-- and we're hoping to scale up-- will not have much of an impact. But working with emissions reduction, this can be a powerful weapon in terms of solving climate change. And it can bring money to farmers through carbon offsets and carbon credits. And I think that's one of the more exciting elements of the project, is we're actually working with real farmers to try to understand how it can help their bottom lines in terms of water efficiency, fertilizer efficiency, and then, the possibility of carbon credits as we explore this opportunity more broadly.

KATIE BAILDON: Does moving from California to New York Impact your research? It's a different geography. Are there different things that you'll be researching while you're in New York?

BEN HOULTON: It is a different place. It actually rather reminds me of Wisconsin, where I grew up, when you think of our incredible dairy industry in New York state and the cooperatives that have developed. And California is kind of a juggernaut. It's quite a different agricultural system in the Central Valley.

As I sort of think about my own research program, which I'll be building in New York, I'm super excited to start engaging in more carbon farming, because the soils in New York might actually have properties that allow for carbon dioxide removal to happen more quickly than in California. And it has to do with the pH of the soil and some of the mineralogy. And also, at Agritech, which is part of CALS, they're exploring industrial hemp.

Industrial hemp is an incredibly productive developing industry. People think of CBD oil. But they're turning hemp into Mercedes Benz plastics in Mercedes Benz, right now, in Germany. And it can be used for building materials.

So whether it's dashboards or new buildings, industrial hemp is an incredible carbon farming and carbon-negative possibility for the state, so I'm excited to explore, what happens if you farm carbon and you do industrial hemp? How can you really create industries that are carbon-negative, because I think that's what the world needs to ultimately explore. So I couldn't be more excited than to be in New York state because of the dairy industry, and my roots in dairy, because of where I see the state going with some of the opportunities in ag and markets, Department of Environmental Conservation, all that is great.

None of this really works without Cooperative Extension. [CHUCKLES] And it really is the fact that, Cooperative Extension, to me, is the force multiplier. The things I'm trying to accomplish can never really scale, they can't really meet those farmers where they're at unless we have an active Cooperative Extension. And so I'm equally excited about continuing to explore opportunities to work with Cooperative Extension.

PAUL TREADWELL: I want to jump back. You said something that struck me as something I don't think I hear a lot of, and that was mentioning farms as part of the landscape. So can we dig into that a little bit? What do you mean by the concept of landscapes, and then, when you integrate a farm into a landscape, what are the implications?

BEN HOULTON: A lot of people will think of nature is this viewpoint of, maybe, trees or maybe just streams. But 40% of Earth's land surface and environment is used to grow food. And it means that agriculture is not only stitched into the landscape, it's the dominant form of the landscape and the global environment. Now, as we think about farms as a part of that, we also know that there is incredible capacity to start interdigitating farms with the landscape, so that the flow of water that goes out to our streams, ultimately, is cleaner.

With new farming-type operations, the carbon that's coming into the soil can produce healthy environments that then start to take advantage of this ecology of the landscape while we farm out. Now, farmers, again, do this. You think of terraces and the way that they're helping to reduce erosion, and animal operations where they take the manure and they're repurposing it, it turns into bedding for the cow.

And I think our farmers are incredibly progressive. Maybe even dairy digesters as this way to create energy and power homes up off of cows and their manure. All that stuff is incredible, but I want us to continue to explore, what a farm really means, what agriculture really means in the 21st century. I think we have a definition that is changing rapidly, and I want our farmers to be part of that conversation, to be part of the definition of what agriculture really means to a resilient world.

But we start out talking about the pandemic. And I think there was a deep appreciation from Albany and New York City-- much more urban-- about what local food really meant as we were crippled by the emergence of the pandemic and the way that it was causing such a high mortality rate in the city. So that's the kind of venture we need to continue to explore.

Agriculture is about societal resilience in the end. But I think that it goes underappreciated. And so I want to-- hopefully, we can start to think of it not only is it part of a landscape but as a part of our entire social system as a chief foundation to our economy.

PAUL TREADWELL: There's something in here about devolving some of the practices that we are currently engaged in, and also a relocalizing. Where do you see CALS having an impact or an effect on those sort of issues?

BEN HOULTON: Our home base New York state. And as the land grant, we have people in every county, through Cooperative Extension, 1,500-plus people. We have Sea Grant, which is really about the Great Lakes and about the coast, and as we are exposed to rising seas, and maybe there's new markets and seaweed farming. So there is all this opportunity.

But my belief is we have to continue to focus on local demonstration opportunities. And the power of CALS working with Cooperative Extension is to get our research empire focused on how they can team up with extension and think about the end-users when they're designing their research experiments. And I think that is the power of thinking locally. But all that local effort is also within a global picture.

Now, how can we create industries that maybe are founded in New York, but then go out? How can our industrial hemp-- going back to that-- which, we're kind of the mecca for a lot of the research for USDA. How can that support the local industry but then be exported outside of our borders?

And it is that complex interplay. But I'm a firm believer in the power of local demonstrations. De-risking some of the interventions that farmers could engage in, we should be doing that research. We should be exploring and understanding things like, if you're going to change the feed that's going to dairy cows maybe as a way to mitigate against methane, CALS should be testing all these things in our dairy operations, at our facilities, understanding through peer review what that really means, and then we start partnering with our industry more broadly.

But it's something about that. But certainly, I'm a huge believer in the power of local. I think if you're not appreciating the local, you never have a chance to go global. I think if you start global and you're trying to work out there, it never really works. I think that's one of the chief lessons of climate change we've learned the hard way, again, is it has to start local and then we scale-out.

KATIE BAILDON: What has surprised or impressed you as you've learned about how Cornell has filled its role in New York state's land grant?

BEN HOULTON: Well first of all, how collegial everybody is, how willing everybody is, how, I think, while it is challenging times, there's this real go-to attitude in Cooperative Extension, this real need to continue to assist society, and how seriously people take that mission. I have been at other institutions-- not UC Davis, they do things well there-- but other institutions which talk about impact. They might have a sound bite about impact.

And we really have impact. If you look at the number of stories of impact that are going on in Cooperative Extension, is just incredible. Whether it's helping our wine and grape industry flourish throughout the Finger Lakes, which is something that the Cooperative Extension and AgriTech have really facilitated. Or it's going back and looking at dairy operations that are improving efficiencies, and we're working with manure management to reduce the amount of nutrients that are cycling through specific interventions which are helping improve the product and helping the environment, very purpose-driven work.

Or, as I mentioned previously, it's food trucks that are going out taking produce and excess food, and maybe, it was milk for a while during the initial days of the pandemic and finding new ways to get that to people who need it. But that is real impact. And I think the estimates are that Cooperative Extension meets the needs of at least two million people in New York state. So one thing that I would go back to is, when I entered the deanship, I have the sense that there was a dedication to the mission of the land grant and the mission of how Cooperative Extension is a force multiplier within that land grant.

PAUL TREADWELL: I've been in with Extension for about 20 years now, and one thing I've learned is, Extension is a system, but it is also, the work of Extension really seems to happen on a person-to-person basis. It's that exchange that happens between an Extension staff person and a community member. It's fundamental to the strength and the power of converting academic knowledge into something that is actually tangible and usable by our citizens.

I love that element there. And it also brings it back down to a much smaller scale, where we're not talking about this global monolith of a system that's going to change everything. What changes things are those one-on-one relationships that echo throughout New York state. Katie, can you turn that into a question?


PAUL TREADWELL: Thank you. I appreciate it.

KATIE BAILDON: So while we're talking about these human components and that person-to-person interaction, I thought we could return to, who is Dean Houlton? What are your passions outside of work?

BEN HOULTON: This comment about person-to-person, people are like, then, how do you feel as a new dean during the pandemic, moving your family across country? And the answer is, completely thrilled and energized.

But it is a lot. And so the way I sort through this kind of goes back to who I try to be as a person. And I have a lot of ideals that I'm constantly working on.

One of them is to be fully where I am in every conversation. Wherever I am, that's where my attention needs to be. And that's something I work on every day.

I wake up and meditate for a half-hour every day in the morning. I haven't missed a day in over a decade. Why do I do that? Because I feel if I don't do that I won't be at my best in a leadership capacity. So that's a huge part of who I am.

I also would say that I aspire to laugh, to bring laughter to a lot of conversations because I think it's incredibly important for people to experience the joy of interaction, even though Zoom. It's not as easy, but I really prize humor.

And what I like to do in my spare time is, I love hanging out with my kids. I have a five-year-old and a 14-year-old. And they're amazing creatures. I learned so much just by listening to them and trying to be a good parent. And those are some of the most valuable lessons that I can actually then carry into the workplace.

And ultimately, my passions are fly-fishing. And I've fished all over the world. I've been so blessed. I was taught by my dad.

And I've been in New Zealand, fly fishing, South America, all around the United States. And here I am in central New York, which has some of the best fly fishing, really, in the United States.

So that's kind of what I do, ultimately, is I spent a lot of time working. I'm deeply passionate. I try to be dedicated to every conversation I'm having with concentration and focus, and try to make it the most important thing that I'm doing. And in my free time, I try to fish, hang out with my kids and my wife, and just, I love my family.

I'm ultimately very Midwestern in a lot of ways. So whatever people's caricature of a Midwestern person, yeah, I'm kind of those things. I'm a Cheesehead. I like people a lot.

And I really just try to be a hard worker. And ultimately, to lead, I think you need to be able to understand the value that everybody brings to every conversation. And that my job is to figure out how to sort that out. So it's an incredible, incredible position. I just am still sorting it out, so I don't have all the answers.

And that's the other thing. I'll never have all the answers. And I really like approaching problems that way.


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