Note: this article in one of several feature stories in a special issue about the West's land grant universities and their extension programs.
In a burst of energy early this century, land-grant universities sent extension agents to America's rural counties. Their mission: to modernize and civilize those counties by teaching the latest in breeding cows, growing wheat, canning peaches and educating children.
Cows still get bred and peaches still get canned in the West.
But as farming, ranching and logging become increasingly contentious and the West floods with urban refugees, extension agents are under immense pressure to change. They've been charged with shortcomings that span the spectrum: They're too urban, too rural, heartlessly efficient, hopelessly politically correct or simply irrelevant.
But despite the contention, some good work is being done.
When Bruce Smith was a child, the county extension agent would often visit his father's ranch in northeastern Montana. He'd do what extension agents have done for most of this century - check up on Smith's 4-H projects and talk shop with his father over coffee. "It was very low-key back then," says Smith.
Now an extension agent in Whitehall, Montana, Smith spends much of his time interpreting Montana to the Californians and Floridians who, ranchette by ranchette, are occupying the state. He tells them the difference between Montana-the-illusion and Montana-the-reality:
"They come in with the cowboy boots and the hat, and you know they haven't had them on for very long," he says. They bought the land in the spring "when it was nice and green. But this area gets 10 inches of rain a year. They say, 'Why can't this five acres handle five horses? The Realtor said it could.' "
The Cooperative Extension Service didn't foresee these concerns when it was authorized by Congress in 1914. Back then, the rural West was there for one reason: To provide food, fiber, wood and minerals for a young, hungry country. Cooperative Extension sent its agents to towns like Alcalde, N.M., and Meeker, Colo., to act as conduits between local people and scientists at the region's land-grant universities - institutions mandated to help rural people.
The agents had a lot of bosses. Paid by federal, state and county governments, the agents also answered to both university scientists and dirt farmers. But conflicts rarely arose because everyone agreed that the extension agents were there simply to make agriculture more productive and profitable.
They were welcome in small-town America. One of the caps circled around any country cafe breakfast table often belonged to an extension agent. His female counterpart, the home economics agent, was often found sipping iced tea on the porch of a local farmhouse after showing a group of farm wives a better way to can tomatoes.
Then history got interesting. The land-grant universities became so adept at figuring out ways to make agriculture more productive that they helped push their main customer and supporter - the family farmer - to the brink of oblivion.
Many who survived the farm crisis were high-tech agribusiness types who increasingly bypassed the county agent and went straight to their fertilizer and pesticide sales representatives for information. Meanwhile, small farmers - many of whom were interested in sustainable agriculture and organic farming - banded together to swap information and support after writing off Cooperative Extension as wedded to the agrochemical industry.
This scenario was played out all over the rural United States. In the High Plains, as farms got bigger, the land was depopulated and towns died. But in the West, events took another twist: Urban refugees arrived, bringing their recreational and environmental priorities with them. They didn't want to raise pigs; they wanted to watch birds. Or sunsets. Or the scenery zip by from the seat of a Jeep. They wanted things to look pretty. They worried less about potato blight than they did about the Dow Jones and their unruly children. Far from seeing the county agent as a welcome and necessary part of their lives, they often mocked him as out of date.
The loss of its friends and the metamorphosis of its constituency were only part of extension's fate: It was losing political support as well. With less than 2 percent of the population working the soil for a living (down from nearly 50 percent at the beginning of the century), agriculture has lost political ground to urban concerns. State legislatures facing shortages of prison space and crumbling city infrastructures often turned chop-happy when it came to funding higher education in general. The country-bumpkin image of land-grant universities and their extension services didn't help.
"Cooperative Extension is seen in many quarters, especially (the city), as a quaint attachment to the past when we were primarily an agrarian society," writes Colorado State University Agriculture Dean Kirvin Knox. "The outreach function of the land-grant system is in deep trouble."
So extension services are changing as if their lives depend on it. While maintaining its presence in rural areas, Colorado State's extension service is preparing to increase its attention to urban, environmental and social concerns. These efforts will be heavily funded by county governments near cities. "Extension is following the population into the suburbs," says Knox, adding that half of the 100,000 kids in Colorado 4-H live in cities of 50,000 or more.
Montana State University has already spread the extension mission far beyond the Ag School; it is now attached to every department in the university. The move makes the university's offerings accessible to far-flung Montanans via computer and allows struggling businesses to get help from the university's business school.
The new comes, but the old doesn't go away
But change doesn't come smoothly to an organization as large and far-flung as extension. An agent in eastern Washington recently lobbied against the environmental protection of an aquifer, claiming it would hurt farmers economically. The same month, another agent in Seattle teamed up with the Washington Toxics Coalition to write a hard-hitting, critical report on groundwater pollution.
Change comes easier, or at least with less pain, to campus academics and administrators than to county agents who have spent most of their adult lives in small towns. University officials can wax enthusiastic about extension's new, politically correct goals of mediating environmental disputes and revitalizing busted farming towns, but their epiphanies may leave a long-time extension soil specialist utterly unmoved.
"The change is occurring, but the old is not going away," says Aaron Harp, an extension sociologist at the University of Idaho. "At the county level there's still a lot of people in the old traditional constituency. Extension agents get in trouble when they try to be all things to all people, because they can't. Either they're labeled as part of the good old boy network or as new greenies."
Nonetheless, Westerners are less connected to the land - and more in need of the right kind of extension - than ever. Newcomers need it: In Montana, Bruce Smith distributes a pamphlet for new landowners explaining how to improve their property without breaking the law or having their neighbors drop by with a shotgun because their stream has been diverted. Farmers need it: The information highway is deluging them with data, but they need to talk that information over with someone who both knows the data and understands local conditions. Loggers need it: More and more small woodlot owners are tempted to enter the lucrative timber market, but they need to know how to do it without ruining their land.
Can Cooperative Extension supply the connection to the land that the New West so sorely needs? It is trying. This issue of High Country News, the fifth in a series on land-grant universities, highlights some of these efforts. We begin with New Mexico State University's Range Improvement Task Force. Commissioned 18 years ago at the urging of ranchers, it has long been suspected of favoring cows over the health of the land. The struggles of the task force illuminate the pressures - both to change and stay the same - that land-grant universities and extension services are working under.
But most of our stories focus on innovators we've picked from more than 1,000 extension agents working in the West. We cover Hudson Glimp, a range scientist at the University of Nevada who has turned his attention from saving breeched lambs to saving ranching itself through consensus-building and dialogue with other users of the Western range.
Off the range, an agent in Montana helps defunct mining towns find economic salvation through small-scale tourism. Another helps Hispanic farmers in northern New Mexico stay on their land in the face of the Anglo colonization of the area. Still others nudge Native American students in Montana onto the information highway, or help nuns become forest managers in Idaho.
An institution with thousands of employees answering to almost every layer of government doesn't turn on a dime. But one thing is clear. Extension is beginning to lurch toward the future.
Lisa Jones is High Country News' project writer.
The following sidebar article accompanies this feature story:
- 'It's great to ask geeks for advice'
This issue's articles on cooperative extension are funded by a grant from the Ford Foundation.