The Extension Service

The Extension Service, 4-H & FFA

Farmers Listens to Presentation on researchIn many ways, the 1950s and 60s were the heydays of the Agricultural Extension Service. During this time agricultural research was expanding and extension agents in almost every rural county helped to demonstrate the results of the research to farmers and rural residents. They also helped organize rural institutions like cooperatives and 4-H Clubs. And they often coordinated with other farm organizations, like the Future Farmers of America.

In addition, personnel from the Extension Service were enlisted to promote the Green Revolution and export modern agricultural technology to developing countries.

The history of the Extension Service goes back to the Civil War. In 1862, President Lincoln signed the Morrill Act that set up the Land Grant College system. These colleges had a unique mission to educate citizens in agriculture, home economics, mechanical arts and other practical professions. For the next 50 years, they did just that, sponsoring research and formal educational programs in those disciplines.

But by 1914, Congress recognized that there was a need to spread the results of the research to working farmers and homemakers who didn’t have time for formal college classes. So the Smith-Lever Act was passed establishing the Extension Service to “extend” the efforts of the land-grant colleges. This was a cooperative program between the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the colleges with funds coming from federal, state and local taxes.

Within a few years of its founding, the Extension Service was thrust into the World War I home front effort. The new county agents worked to encourage farmers in their area to plant more wheat to support the troops. Wheat acreage went from 47 million acres in 1913 to 74 million in 1919. They also taught homemakers how to can, dry and preserve the food they raised. And they helped alleviate labor shortages from the draft by organizing the “Women’s Land Army” and the “Boys’ Working Reserve.”

During the Depression, extension agents turned their attention to techniques for farm management, teaching farm owners to keep books and market their products. Agents supported the cooperative movement, and continued to support farm wives with nutrition, gardening and home enterprises that could help bring in cash.

In World War II, the Extension Service again focused on increasing production of food. Despite labor shortages, production was 38 percent higher in 1944 than before the war. The service was also a sponsor of the popular Victory Garden program.

By the 1950s, Extension was firmly established and providing a variety of services to rural America.

In 1968, county agents were surveyed and characterized the manpower resources being expended in eight program areas –

  1. Production of range, farm and forest products.
  2. Development of people as individuals and as members of families and communities.
  3. Individual and family resource management.
  4. Community organizations, services and environment.
  5. Marketing and distribution.
  6. Leadership development for identifying and solving problems.
  7. Conservation and effective use of natural resources.
  8. Social and economic development of other countries.

The 1968 report was completed in one of the most tumultuous years of the 20th century. The authors wrote that agriculture and rural communities were changing at a dizzying rate. Technology was accelerating the rate of change. Farmers who couldn’t keep up with new research would be left behind or forced out of business. American society as a whole was undergoing fundamental changes, and rural residents who were moving to the cities found overwhelming challenges. The report advocated that Extension broaden its mission to include low-income farmers and poor rural and urban families, in addition to their traditional constituents, the specialized and commercial farmers. The report urged Extension to be a force in solving the broad range of social and economic problems facing the nation.

For a time, Extension was able to expand its mission. But as fewer and fewer farmers were able to produce more and more food on less land – and as rural communities shrank – the political power of the agriculture sector diminished. Federal funding gradually diminished as well, and more and more Extension Service offices and programs were consolidated.

Today, 2,900 extension offices remain nationwide.

4-H Poster4-H and FFA. Most of the programs of the Extension Service are intended as training and education for adults. 4-H and FFA are part of the system of training and educating rural young people.

FFA (the Future Farmers of America) is a formal education program sponsored by local schools. 4-H is an after school program sponsored by the Extension Service. In some areas, the two programs work together, but in other areas they compete to recruit young people and for resources for competitions like county fairs. Both programs teach skills that urban people might not identify as strictly agricultural. For instance, rural communities are, by definition, small and that means that any local farmer who is successful will be pressed into leadership roles in the community. So, ag education programs emphasize skills like public speaking and parliamentary procedure. The process of leadership is a study in and of itself for by the FFA and 4-H.

4-H grew out of local youth programs that developed around the country at the turn of the 20th century. For instance, in 1901, A. B. Graham, a school principal in Ohio, organized out of school “clubs” to promote vocational agriculture. Corn growing clubs and competitions for young people started up in Texas, Mississippi, Georgia, Iowa and other Midwestern states.

In York County, Nebraska, in 1905, E. C. Bishop organized the Nebraska Boys Agricultural Association and the Nebraska Girls Domestic Science Association. The boys exhibited corn and garden products and held livestock judging contests. The girls exhibited sewing and cooking projects and held contests to judge sewing, handiwork and cooking.

Bishop was the author of a passage that has been adopted by the 4-H when he wrote his clubs were designed “to educate the youth of the county, town and city to a knowledge of their dependence on nature’s resources, and to the value of the fullest development of hand, head and heart.”

The FFA was established in 1917 by the Smith-Hughes National Vocational Education Act. In the next decade, schools in at least 18 states began vocational agriculture education courses.

In 1928, those states came together to form a national FFA association. The next year, the official colors of blue and “corn gold” were adopted, and in 1933 the familiar blue corduroy jackets showed up at a national convention.

film_schrick_RIn 1950, FFA received a federal charter from Congress. Today, there are over 7,000 chapters in all 50 states with almost half-a-million members participating.

Terry Schrick was an agricultural education teacher and FFA sponsor at Wilbur, Nebraska, until he retired recently. He says that ag education teaches lessons that stay with the students no matter what profession they eventually pursue. “There are so many areas they can excel in,” he says. “It doesn’t matter if it’s public speaking, parliamentary procedure… the welding part… the construction part of it, the motors… Each kid can find his mark.”

Written by Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. First published in 2007. A partial bibliography of sources is here.

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