Extension services have come a long way since they began a century ago.
“Extension has been the cornerstone of agriculture for the last 100 years,” said Reardan, Wash., wheat farmer Fred Fleming.
After the Morrill Act created land-grant universities and the Hatch Act established research programs at those schools, information was not being disseminated across the state to end-users, Douglas Steele, co-chair of the National Extension Centennial Celebration Committee and director of Texas A&M University Agrilife Extension Service, said.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Smith-Lever Act, which created the national Cooperative Extension system. The primary day of celebration will be May 8, according to the national celebration.
Farmers once received more hands-on training and were not necessarily schooled in universities. Their skill set was passed down from father to son, Fleming said.
“Extension was a true source of getting information from the university out to the land,” he said.
Paul McCawley, University of Idaho Extension associate director, believes extension remains important to farmers today, as faculty keep abreast of new information and work with growers to test new varieties and practices in field trials to improve yields and increase pesticide, fertilizer and irrigation efficiencies.
Over the years, as more and more people moved away from their farm roots, society had less direct involvement in agriculture, Steele said.
“What people forget today, even though less than 2 percent of the population is directly involved in production agriculture, anywhere from 18 to 22 percent are involved in agriculture through processing, distribution systems, retailers, the end-product getting onto the shelves,” he said.
As extension’s mission evolved, it had to become more technology-based and make information readily available 24-7, he said.
Deer Park, Wash., sheep producer Sandra Willford worries that some changes mean extension is losing its focus.
“We used to have an ag extension agent in every county that was a resource, even if it was not their particular forte,” she said.
Now many agents are educators and their priorities have shifted from agriculture to small business or community development and cover broader territory.
Agriculture agents can now be several counties away, she said, making it difficult for farmers to interact closely with them.
“I would like to see it come back to the root of what the land-grant universities were,” she said. “They were there to promote, support and research for agriculture, not community development and philosophical concepts.”
Rich Koenig, director and associate dean of Washington State University Extension, acknowledged that some services have changed or gone away with fixed staff numbers as the portfolio broadens and urban programs develop.
“We’re still local and still available — through strong county partnerships we’ve been able to maintain a presence in every county,” he said of WSU’s program. “Ag has always been at the core of extension, and I think it will always be the core. I don’t see that changing.”
Today a higher level of education is required, he said, so the majority of extension staff are specialists instead of generalists.
“It allows our staff to provide a higher-quality, higher level of depth in information they provide, more valuable answers and information to clients,” Koenig said.
About 50 to 60 percent of extension resources across the United States are still directly involved in agriculture, Steele said. It might be integrated pest management or value-added processing instead of production ag, he said.
Fleming said today's farmer is well-educated and has ready access to information on the Internet. He expects extension research efforts to be more collaborative between farmers or private companies.
Those relationships are still important, said Janet Schmidt, director and 4-H youth educator for WSU Extension in Whitman County.
“We connect with the people and we enjoy working with people,” she said. “Things are going to look different, but I feel with great certainty that extension is always going to be here and we’re always going to be a partner with farmers, families, communities and youth. We’re here for the long haul.”