Agricultural extension has been an essential component in helping farmers acquire knowledge of new technology and practices.  While governments have been providing information for farmers for several millennia, the U.S. combined system of land grant universities, agricultural experiment stations, and cooperative extension systems, federally- and state-funded but state-based, was a uniquely American development.

State actors have been disseminating information about agricultural practices to their farmers for a very long time. The first archeological evidence of such activity dates back to about 1800 B.C., with the discovery of clay tablets with inscriptions about how to best water crops and reduce grain spoilage due to rats in Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq).  The earliest surviving texts on agricultural practices came from ancient Greece and Phoenicia, such as Xenophon’s work in the fourth century B.C., later adapted by Roman writers.  Ancient Chinese governments also provided such advice from the sixth century B.C. on, as they were interested in maximizing tax revenue from landowners.

The first formal affiliation of universities with such dissemination occurred in England in the 19th century, as faculty members at Oxford and Cambridge Universities sought to share their work outside the confines of their campuses, an activity they dubbed as ‘university extension’.  Agricultural practices became common topics of these traveling lecture tours around the English countryside by the 1890’s.

Even before the United States became a country, prominent colonists recognized the need to make knowledge of agricultural techniques and practices widely available.  The broad concept of a scientific society came first, with the establishment of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia in 1744.  This organization was founded by Benjamin Franklin, and it published many essays on agricultural topics in its early years. The 1754 prospectus of King’s College in New York City (now Columbia University) included ‘agriculture and merchandise’ in the course of study. By the dawn of the 19th century, most of the states in the original American colonies had their own scientific societies focused specifically on agriculture.

The passage of the Morrill Act in 1862, which established the land-grant system, created the first leg of the three-legged federal/state stool which now supports U.S. agriculture. I described the emergence of the land grant university system in a blog published on April 14, 2017. Formal federal authorization and financial support for agricultural research came with the passage of two pieces of legislation in 1887–the Agricultural Experiment Station Act (authorization) and the Hatch Act (funding), which funded agricultural research associated with land grant universities in every state.  

The final piece of the puzzle was formally establishing the cooperative extension service under the Smith-Lever Act of 1914.  Activities covered under this legislation include agriculture, home economics, public policy/government, leadership, 4-H, economic development, coastal issues (National Sea Grant College Program), and many other related subjects.   Federal funding for agricultural extension is allocated based on the following formula:

  • 20 percent of funds shared equally by all 50 states
  • 40 percent of funds shared based on the proportion of rural populations of the states, as determined by the decennial Census, and
  • 40 percent of funds shared by the proportion of farm population of the states, also as determined by the Census.

Except for the native American tribal colleges granted land grant status in 1994 under the Equity in Educational Land Grant Status Act, each state must provide matching funds for the federal funding their extension services receive under Smith-Lever.

The emergence of the combination of state-level institutions involved in agriculture–land grant universities, agricultural experiment stations, and extension services, all components funded to some degree by federal money–was a uniquely American development at the time, and has served U.S. farmers well over the last 150 years or so.

At the time that the Smith-Lever Act was enacted, more than 50 percent of the U.S. population lived in rural areas, and 30 percent of the workforce was engaged in farming.  Especially after World War II, agricultural extension workers were helpful in transforming how Americans farm, enabling farm productivity to soar. While the number of farms in the U.S. declined between 1950 and the end of the 20th century— from 5.4 million to 1.9 million — farm production dramatically increased. In 1950, one American farmer supported the food needs of 15.5 people; in 1997, one farmer supported the food needs of almost 140 people.

Providing capable agricultural extension services will be essential to helping smallholder farmers in the developing world, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa, improve their farming operations.  Only a handful of countries in that region have effective national extension systems in place right now.  In a paper commissioned by the Farm Journal Foundation in 2017, Dr. Thomas Jayne of Michigan State University pointed out that the typical U.S. project addressing poor extension assistance in Africa in the past has involved providing grants to third parties, such as centers within the CGIAR system, international universities, and for-profit development companies to directly provide such services, rather than helping those countries improve the capacity of their existing extension systems.  Hopefully, that mindset is gradually changing.


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