Cooperative Extension History

In 2014, NIFA and our partners in the Land-Grant University System celebrated 100 years of Cooperative Extension in the United States.

In the century since its creation, this nationwide educational and outreach network has made significant contributions to American agriculture — particularly in rural areas — and improved lives across the country.  NIFA plays a key role in the land-grant extension mission by distributing congressionally appropriated formula grants annually and by providing national program leadership.   

Extension’s roots go back to agricultural clubs and societies, which sprang up after the American Revolution in the early 1800s. In 1819, a pioneer agriculture journal entitled American Farmer encouraged farmers to report on their achievements and their methods of solving problems.

The Smith Lever Act formalized extension in 1914, establishing USDA's partnership with land-grant universities to apply research and provide education in agriculture. Congress created the extension system to address exclusively rural, agricultural issues. At that time, more than 50 percent of the U.S. population lived in rural areas, and 30 percent of the workforce was engaged in farming.

Extension's engagement with rural America helped make possible the American agricultural revolution, which dramatically increased farm productivity, allowing fewer farmers to produce more food.

World War I

The extension service's first big test came during World War I, when it helped the nation meet its wartime needs by:

  • Increasing wheat acreage significantly, from an average of 47 million acres annually in 1913 to 74 million in 1919.
  • Implementing its new authority — in partnership with USDA — to encourage farm production, marketing, and conserving of perishable products by canning, drying, and preserving.
  • Helping to address war-related farm labor shortages at harvest time by organizing the Women's Land Army and the Boys' Working Reserve

The Depression

Throughout the Great Depression, state colleges and the USDA emphasized farm management for individual farmers. Extension agents taught farmers about marketing and helped farm groups organize both buying and selling cooperatives. At the same time, extension home economists taught farm women — who traditionally maintained the household — good nutrition, surplus food canning, gardening, home poultry production, home nursing, furniture refinishing, and sewing — skills that helped many farm families survive the years of economic depression and drought.

World War II

Throughout World War II, the extension service again worked with farmers and their families, along with 4-H club members, to secure the production increases essential to the war effort. Each year for five years, total food production increased. In 1944, food production was 38 percent above the 1935-1939 average.

Post World War II

Extension’s role in extending new technologies to U.S. farmers and ranchers helped farm production increase dramatically: While the number of farms in the U.S. declined over the next five decades — from 5.4 million to 1.9 million — farm production dramatically increased. In 1950, one farmer supported the food needs of 15.5 people; in 1997, one farmer supported the food needs of almost 140 people.

Today

Over the last century, extension has adapted to changing times and landscapes.  Fewer than 2 percent of Americans farm for a living today, and only 17 percent of Americans now live in rural areas. Yet, the extension service still plays a significant role in American life — rural, urban, and suburban. With its unprecedented reach — an office in or near most of the nation's approximately 3,000 counties — extension agents help farmers and ranchers achieve greater success, assist families with nutrition and home economics, and prepare today’s youth to become leaders tomorrow. To reach an even wider audience, extension offers the eXtension website.