Understanding Cooperative Extension

Yesterday, I covered what Land Grant Institutions where, how they came into being and their importance to agriculturists.  Another unique aspect of Land Grant institutions is the Cooperative Extension Service.  Not all universities have this tremendous resource available.  Yes, even in Mississippi, we get fans (and even alumni) from the “other” school soliciting our advice; grudgingly, I’m sure, but that is the great thing about cooperative extension – every person in every state has access, regardless of affiliation.

As we discussed last time, the Morrill Act of 1862 established land-grant universities to educate citizens in agriculture and other practical professions. The idea of Extension was formalized in 1914, when the Smith-Lever Act established the partnership between the agricultural colleges and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to provide for cooperative agricultural extension work. Some of the major objectives for this agricultural extension work were to develop practical applications of research knowledge and provide instruction and practical demonstrations of existing and improved agricultural practices.

The Smith-Lever Act mandated that the Federal Government provide each state with funds based on a population-related formula.  The 1890 Land Grant institutions do not receive Smith-Lever funds, but other programs have been created to help advance their extension efforts.  Today, the National Institute of Food and Agriculture  (NIFA), through the USDA, distributes these funds annually.

Cooperative Extension played an important role in the United States during the 1930’s and 1940’s.  During the Great Depression, state colleges and the USDA emphasized farm management for individual farmers. Extension agents taught farmers about marketing and helped farm groups organize cooperatives that assisted many farm families during those years of economic depression and drought.  World War II followed this period, in which the extension service worked with farmers to increase production of agricultural products essential to the war effort.  Out of this effort rose the Victory Garden program was one of the most popular programs during the early to mid 1940’s (this is especially gratifying to report being a horticulture extension specialist!).  Millions of families planted victory gardens during these trying war years to produce home-grown fruit and vegetables – all through the assistance of the Cooperative Extension Service.

Since 1950 the number of farms in the U.S. has declined; however, the remaining farms have a larger average acreage than they did several decades ago. Farm production has also increased to the point where one farmer today supports the food needs of roughly 150 U.S. citizens. The Cooperative Extension Service played a significant role in this increased productivity because of technology transfer of increased mechanization, commercial fertilizers, new hybrid seeds, and other technologies.

Today, Cooperative Extension works in six major areas, including 4-H Youth Development, Leadership Development, Natural Resources, Family and Consumer Sciences, Community and Economic Development, and, of course, Agriculture. However, as the population dynamic of the United States continues to evolve, the Cooperative Extension Service must adapt to new situations with fewer resources.

Land Grant institutions must not only be leaders in research and teaching, but they must also have an educational outlet for their resources that reaches the general public.  This is often satisfied through non-formal, non-credit programs taught by individuals involved with Cooperative Extension.  As an example, I have taught two crop management short courses (pecan and grape), as well as several workshops, Master Gardener trainings, and field days.  These types of programs are usually developed and taught by the thousands of county, regional, and state level extension personnel that have the directive to bring Land Grant expertise to the local level.

The Cooperative Extension System was created by Congress nearly a century ago to address the rural and agricultural issues most Americans faced that the time. In 1914, a majority of the U.S. population lived in rural areas and most of them relied on farming to make a living. Cooperative Extension helped direct the evolution of American agriculture, which let to significant increases in farm productivity.  So, obviously the cooperative extension service operating through the Land Grant institutions have played a major role in where we stand now as a country (and not just agriculturally).  A recent study conducted in one state found that the annual impact of their Cooperative Extension and Experiment Station system could be measured in the billions of dollars – and that’s just in one state, imagine the total economic, social, and educational impact nationwide.

Advancements in agricultural research and the “extension” of those new discoveries have led to a new kind of society, one where a vast majority does not need to grow any type of food for their families.  In some ways that is an enormous achievement, but increasingly the urbanized general public is ignorant of what Cooperative Extension is all about (or even that it exists at all).  In Mississippi, a great deal of the population still resides in rural areas, but many in the new population influx are coming from heavily urbanized states.  What I see all too often is someone who finds me too late after planting a crop without doing the necessary preparation and education.

But is it their fault they don’t know Cooperative Extension exists?

I urge researchers, teachers, and growers alike, as representatives of the Cooperative Extension ideology, to find ways to head off these disasters through new and innovative ways of education, marketing, and promotion.  One such method is the national Web site www.extension.org.  Although just in its infancy, it may eventually provide us with the portal for which everyone with a question is funneled to first.  A lot of effort has been put into making this resource available, now we need to make it work.

As the old naval saying goes, “A rising tide raises all ships,” and I am a firm believer that educated producers and consumers will help any industry be more successful.  So, I hope you all will make use of the Land Grant-based Cooperative Extension Service, and encourage your friends and neighbors to do the same.  After all educating and relaying research information to producers and growers is the entire reason we exist.

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