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.
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
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.
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
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." "
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
This issue's articles on cooperative extension
are funded by a grant from the Ford Foundation.