Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Created to help farmers rationalize and modernize their operations, the Agricultural Extension Service (AES) is a cooperative venture between federal, state, and local governments; land grant colleges and universities; and agricultural experiment stations. Growing out of late-nineteenth-century farmers institutes, efforts by reformers like Dr. Seaman Knapp, and concerns raised by the Country Life Commission of 1908, the extension service received federal funding with the 1914 Smith-Lever Act. Individual states, counties, and farmers organizations such as the Farm Bureau also provided funding over the years.

State extension offices and county agents conducted research and provided expertise on farm management; Plains-worthy strains of grasses and small grains; animal husbandry; marketing and bookkeeping; and controlling pests like gophers, grasshoppers, and Russian thistle. Agents also supervised clubs for boys and girls and developed home extension programs for farm wives. The larger mission of the aes included not only aiding rural Americans in improving their agricultural operations but also developing local leadership and improving the quality of rural life through better health and community activities.

The extension service expanded quickly during World War I, when the Food Production Act of 1917 provided funds for extension agents in each county in the United States. But the long agricultural depression that followed challenged the assumptions and even the survival of the AES in many Great Plains states. By the early 1930s, many counties had closed their extension offices. In South Dakota, for instance, only sixteen counties–about a quarter– had AES agents by late 1932, while nationally the number of agricultural agents and home extension agents declined by one-third and one-half, respectively.

Even as the Depression and the drought of the 1930s created an unprecedented crisis for Great Plains farmers, it reinvigorated the extension service, which implemented the Agricultural Adjustment Administration in 1933. Agents' heroic coordination of life- and farmsaving federal programs tempered most farmers' traditional mistrust of federal bureaucracies, including the extension service. In addition, state legislatures placed the aes on a much more stable financial footing. Over the next several decades, state and county agents once again mobilized farmers for a world war; helped farmers adapt to technological and chemical innovations and make the transition in livestock production from the open range to the farm; extended its mission to urban gardeners; and became involved in environmental issues, as in Montana, where the AES helped reclaim land marred by open pit coal mining.

Nearly a century after the extension service appeared, it remains a largely local bureau dedicated to education rather than policymaking, with two-thirds of its nearly 17,000 employees working at the county level. The top programming priorities remain agriculture and home economics, with 4-H/Youth programs a close third, and community development fourth. Although federal funding has been reduced in recent years, the AES is still cooperatively sponsored by federal, state, and county governments. The traditional focus on education–through small group demonstrations, one-on-one contacts, publications, and other mass media outlets– continues to shape extension activities.

James Marten Marquette University

Brunner, Edmund, and E. Hsin Pao Yang. Rural America and the Extension Service: A History and Critique of the Cooperative Agricultural and Home Economics Extension Service. New York: Columbia University, 1949.

Kappel, Tana, ed. From Sod-Busting to Satellites: 100 Years of Agricultural Research and Extension in Montana. Bozeman: Montana State University, 1993.

Scott, Roy V. The Reluctant Farmer: The Rise of Agricultural Extension to 1914. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1970.

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