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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Agricultural Extension: Still relevant?

Recently, the Progressive Farmer ran a cover story to herald in the upcoming centennial anniversary of the University Extension system and to discuss its relevance to today's farmers. Over the past few decades, Extension has been in the crosshairs of legislators looking to find places to trim budgets. Critics argue that Extension has outlived its usefulness and that it fails to reach out to a populace that has changed over time.

In 1914, 31% of the population in the U.S. were employed in agriculture. Extension was created as an experiment that would attempt to bring a science-based approach to an industry that had been based on tradition and trial by error by providing a middle-man between land-grant universities and farmers. The system was put in place before the U.S. became the agricultural power that it is today, and Extension deserves enormous praise for effectively disseminating scientific discoveries into practice in rural America. With advancement, today's farms are larger and more efficient at producing our food, with less than 2% of the populace employed in agriculture. Although today's farms are still 98% family-owned and operated, their operators are more educated and business-savvy than their counterparts at the turn of the century, and thus some are not always as reliant on Extension as in the past.


While I understand that times have changed, that is not necessarily a justification for the end of a program that has changed rural America for the better. Extension was founded on three principles: research, education, and family living(which includes 4-H) and it still has a tremendous value in communities across the nation. From my limited experience abroad (South Africa and now Australia) you hear very little about the link they have in place between farms and universities. Furthermore, I've yet to see a country with a youth program like 4-H that not only helps train the up and coming generation of farmers, but exposes over 7 million kids a year to agriculture and its values.

I'd have to agree with Alison Robertson, a native of Zimbabwe now working in Iowa State Extension who states, "The Extension system has been the envy of people around the world. I hate what is happening to it."

No one can argue that for Extension to remain a viable, it must be able to reach out to an increasingly urban population. However, it also needs to take more credit for its role in disseminating information to the 2% of people who put food on the table for the rest of the country.

For those interested in the full article, check it out at

Hyatt Frobose

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