Cooperative Extension in the United States is a flagship program for connecting public “land-grant” universities to the general public. The goal of the Cooperative Extension System is to move knowledge created by researchers to groups who need it. A major audience has historically been agriculture, but other program areas deal with nutrition, child development, families, the environment and a variety of other issues.
I’ve worked as a faculty member in the Cooperative Extension program for 20 years, and I deeply admire the system. Like everyone with Extension responsibilities, I’ve been watching the changes that are going on nationally and at the state level. So I took notice of a very important cautionary note from our neighbors in Canada.
Writing in the Journal of Extension, Lee-Anne Milburn, Susan Mulley, and Carol Kline document the demise of agricultural extension in the province of Ontario. Their article, “The End of the Beginning and the Beginning of the End: The Decline of Public Agricultural Extension in Ontario,” shows how by the year 2000, “Extension in Ontario was moribund.”
How did this happen? According to Milburn and colleagues, some reasons are:
- The decline of people involved in farming; fewer than 2% of Canada’s population are now involved in agriculture.
- The decline in the agricultural sector in turn reduced political support for extension. Population changes “make agriculture less politically relevant and therefore create difficulties in accessing necessary funding for agricultural research and Extension.”
- A key point: Extension was unable to document economic benefits; without clear “return on investment,” the government was unwilling to fund it.
- Farmers now have access to many other information sources, making the Extension agent more of a “peer information consultant,” helping the farmer to access information rather than being seen as the source of expertise.
- Universities focus increasingly on scholarship; in the words of the authors this relegates “Extension to the academic hinterland of ‘service and outreach.’”
It’s clear that these issues confront Cooperative Extension in the United States. Fortunately, the authors have some suggestions for what people involved in Extension should do:
- Respond to the needs of rural non-farm residents. They point out that there are all kinds of issues in rural life Extension could respond to, like wetland and woodlot management, sustainable economic development, and conservation and stewardship.
- Recognize that Extension programs have a life cycle and redirect resources away from failing or outdated programs.
- Make creative use of new information technologies.
- And a very interesting point: They suggest that reducing Extension field staff can be a mistake, and replacing one-on-one contact with consumers “is a recipe for decline.” They recommend in-person training and discussions rather than fact sheets and web-based information alone.
All food for thought as we enter a new era in Cooperative Extension!