History of Extension Associations

A History of Cooperative Extension, 1914 – Present

1914 – 1920: Good weather, markets, and prices fostered a prosperous agriculture, and Extension grew steadily, clarifying the roles and relationships between the federal and state partners and gaining local support from farmers’ groups (precursors of today’s County Extension Board). World War I saw the rapid development of County Extension offices, culminating in a nationwide network by the close of 1920. The Extension agent became, during the war, “the patriotic leader of numerous war campaigns” and “a propagandist of the highest order,” according to Extension historian Gladys Baker.

1921 – 1929: The postwar agricultural depression created the “farm problem” and the not-so — Roaring ’20s’ for rural America. Agents most often worked one-on-one with farmers, stressing efficient production and marketing. But the number of volunteers increased substantially (182,000 in 1923), and Extension programs swelled to include rural sociology, child development, public affairs, and drama and music. Gradually, as farm and city people became increasingly interdependent, agents worked more with community groups, less with individuals. In 1923, the Federal Extension Service replaced the original States Relations Service. By 1928, the Extension staff numbered over 5,000.

1930 – 1940: The “Great Depression” dealt a devastating blow to rural and urban America alike. Extension became the chief means of implementing national program activities directed at the economic preservation of the family farm, the farm family, and rural America. With a service function thrust upon them, Extension staff members spread knowledge about Roosevelt’s aid packages for depression victims. Extension also helped establish her sister USDA agencies, including the Soil Conservation Service and the forerunner of the Farmers’ Home Administration. By 1938, the Extension staff had grown to 8,682.

1941 – 1946: World War II ended the depression as the nation made an all-out production effort: Extension agents educated the public about dealing with shortages and rationing and about the war effort itself, training 600,000 “neighborhood leaders”: a man and a woman in every locality — each responsible for contacting 10 to 20 families. “Victory gardens” and “war cookery” took much staff time, and Extension broadened its efforts beyond agriculture and home economics. Its agents held public policy discussion groups all across the country, dealing with the issues of war and the defense of democracy.

1947 – 1960: Rapid technology development spread across rural America, transforming the family into a complex business and the agricultural system into a vast economic/technological network. By 1950, increased production and effective marketing were still top priorities for Extension, but the old aim of engendering a love of rural life gave way to promoting rural people’s appreciation of national and international issues. The increasingly complex subjects of home economics began to include a new emphasis on human relationships. Pilot efforts in rural development were undertaken. And Extension staff ranks swelled to more than 11,000 in 1948, almost 15,000 in 1958.

1961 – 1977: The massive social conflicts growing out of the war in Vietnam and the civil rights movement profoundly affected Cooperative Extension programs. Congress began to use grants-in-aid funding to influence Extension more directly, and program focus shifted to include the problems of the city, low-income people, and minorities. Farmers, who in 1940 had made up 25 percent of the American people, accounted for only 5 percent by 1970 and Extension’s clientele broadened to reflect this massive demographic shift. New programs arose, particularly in community resource development, and Congress mandated new initiatives in nutrition for low-income people, rural development, and urban 4-H programs, among others. Major civil rights equal opportunity efforts were carried out in both Extension staffing and program delivery and Congress mandated, for the first time, separate federal funding for the 1890 institutions and Tuskegee University.

1978 – Present: By 1985, the farm population decreased to 2.4 percent of the population and the majority of Extension’s clientele was now in urban areas. The economic plight of farmers who were suffering from cash flow problems and drastic real property deflation after 1981 resulted in Extension programs on farm family stress management and much greater emphasis on farm business management. Teams or clusters of Extension staff members in various program areas collaborated on problem-solving programs for farm families. At the same time, efforts at broader programming intensified in 4-H, family living, community resource development, and natural resources.
As the U.S. population shifts toward an older age spectrum and family structures and relationships change, Extension is generating new programming in family resource management, family strengths and communications, and issues such as pre-retirement, health and the elderly, and home-based business. Educational programs on community problems — economic, social, and aesthetic — have kept agents and specialist in key facilitating roles with local groups.

Adapted and enlarged from Extension Committee on Organization and Policy. NASULGC Publication, Washington, D.C., 1985.

Extension today

Today, Extension still meets public needs at the local level.  Increasingly, extension serves a growing, increasingly diverse constituency with fewer and fewer resources.

Technology continues to change the way Extension advances its mission. The Extension system supports eXtension, a coordinated, Internet-based information system where customers will have round-the-clock access to trustworthy, balanced views of specialized information and education on a wide range of topics. Information on eXtension is organized into Communities of Practice (COP), each with articles, news, events, and frequently asked questions (FAQs). The information comes from Land-Grant University System faculty and staff experts and undergoes peer review before publication.

Technology also allows more integration of work locally and regionally, including work with partners in other institutions, and enables staff to provide information and engage with citizens 24/7 through online resources, including publications, databases, images, video clips, blogs, social media communities, and more.

Adapted in part from CSREES: http://www.csrees.usda.gov/qlinks/extension.html#today