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Program-Specific & Volunteer Resources - Origins of Cooperative Extension

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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.

UMaine circa 1902 farmer in her bean field two men working a field boy with two calves Extension agent conducts a workshop from a train car
1862 1887 1902 1907-1910 1914
Morrill Act gave endowment for creation of land-grant schools. Organic Act created the United States Department of Agriculture. Hatch Act created experiment stations for land-grant colleges. Demonstration Farm established by Seaman Knapp. Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs for teaching the latest agricultural practices. Smith-Lever Act created the Cooperative Extension Service.


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