Origins of Cooperative Extension

A Unique Educational Organization

What’s in a name? In this case, plenty — although it takes a little digging to uncover all the implications of the three words: “Cooperative Extension System.” Let’s take them one at a time.


By design, the Extension’s organization foundation is a nationwide partnership composed of three distinct yet related and coordinated bodies:

The federal partner is the Extension Service of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), now organized within the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA).

The state partner is the Cooperative Extension of the land-grant university of each state and several US territories.

The county or local partner is the city or county government, or other elected authority governing local Extension programs.

It is cooperative in that the partnership is a coordinated effort among three levels of government with three sources of public funding and three levels of perspectives on mission, goals, and priorities for programming.


It is an extension of the USDA and the land-grant institutions of each state—the outreach partner of the land-grant institution with a role of reaching people and extending knowledge and other resources to those not on campus. Extension programs are offered in communities to address needs, problems or issues of local community members.


It is a system, a unique national educational system that draws on the expertise of the federal, state, and local partners to provide practical, unbiased information produced by the research centers and universities to community members.

The Origins of Cooperative Extension—A Timeline

Agriculture was America’s central pursuit when this country was founded. Informal attempts at agricultural education were made by sharing information through agricultural societies and Farmers’ Institutes. The Morrill Act created a college for the industrial classes to include the study of agriculture; the Hatch Act established the research component to strengthen the science of agriculture. However, it was the leadership of Seaman Knapp who established the demonstration method that became the model of a national network of county agents, now called Cooperative Extension.

1862   1887   1902   1907-1910   1914


Landmark Event(s)


old photo of UMaine campus

  • UMaine circa 1902The first Morrill Act, in 1862 (the second would come in 1890), granted each state 30,000 acres of federal land for every senator and representative. Each state was to sell the land and invest in the proceeds in an endowment, the interest to be used to establish:

….at least one college where the leading object shall be, without excluding other scientific and classical studies and including military tactics, to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts…in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life. [Eddy 1957, p.31]

  • It was also during 1862 that the Organic Act was passed by Congress creating the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The new organization operated as a division of the Patents Office and functioned primarily as an office of communication. Annual reports including research were published and distributed to farmers. In 1889 the Department began publishing Farmers Bulletins, which were later reformatted and became the Yearbook of Agriculture.


woman picking beans in a field

  • The Hatch Act of 1887 provided for a department to be designated and known as the agricultural experiment station in each of the colleges established under the Morrill Act. Its purpose was:

…to aid in inquiring and diffusing among the people in the United States useful and practical information on subjects connected with agriculture and to promote scientific investigation in experiments respecting the principles and application of agricultural science. [Prawl 1984, p. 18]

sample page from the First Annual Report for the Kansas Experiment Station, 1888
From the First Annual Report for the Kansas Experiment Station, State Agricultural College, for the Year 1888. ?

The stations were required to publish periodic bulletins or reports of projects and make them available to the public.


two men haying a field

  • Seaman Knapp created the demonstration farm model. These farms were designed to show how to increase yields of the standard crops. It was through this work that Knapp learned the power of agriculture demonstration. His philosophy is best described in one of his most often quoted sayings:

“What a man hears, he may doubt. What he sees, he may possibly doubt. But what a man does himself, he cannot doubt.” [Bliss 1952, p. 240]


calves and young 4-H member

  • Extension agent teaches girls how to prepare foodBoys’ and girls’ club work, now known as 4-H clubs, developed from the idea of education in the public schools and a desire to teach the latest agricultural practices through youth. Corn-growing contests, canning clubs, and other agricultural projects were popular ways to spread innovations among youth. Home demonstration agents were part of early Extension work for the girls’ canning clubs and for women.


extension staff member teaching from a train

  • The Smith-Lever Act extended the benefits of federal aid to those colleges established under the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890. Its purpose was to:

…inaugurate, in connection with these colleges, Agricultural Extension work which shall be carried on in cooperation with the United States Department of Agriculture…in order to aid in diffusing among the people of the United States useful and practical information on subjects relating to Agriculture and Home Economics, and to encourage the application of the same. [Eddy 1957]