Several years ago, I wrote what I hoped would become a training manual for new employees for my state Extension system. For a several reasons, it was not adopted,
While the material mainly focuses on the history and legacy of the Cooperative Extension program in Alabama, much of it is highly applicable to other states.
As a 29-year veteran of Cooperative Extension work, I believe that every new employee should acquire a good working knowledge not only of Extension history but of the ideals that have have distinguished Cooperative Extension as one of the most successful educational movements in history. That was the intended purpose of this manual: to inspire Cooperative Extension employees both with a knowledge of an passion for their organization’s history and objectives.
Please feel free to adapt this material to the training needs of your own Extension personnel.
The ABC’s of Cooperative Extension
A Roadmap to Your Future
Welcome aboard and congratulations!
You have joined the ranks of one of the most respected and innovative Cooperative Extension programs in the nation.
The purpose of this text is threefold. First we want to acquaint you with our history and mission, one that actually predates the passage of the Smith-Lever Act of 1914, which formally established Alabama’s Extension program and similar ones throughout the nation.
We’re proud of this unique history, one that closely parallels the history of this state and her people. Our long history of outreach, closely bound with the struggles and aspirations of the people of Alabama, is one of our greatest assets and one on which we will build a new model of outreach to reach new audiences within the emerging global knowledge economy of the 21st century.
Second, we want to give to give you an idea of how Cooperative Extension works. As an organization that operates across many different boundaries and lines of authority, Extension is often confusing to newcomers. Even so, we believe that the diversity and flexibility of our organizational structure constitutes another one our greatest strengths and partly accounts for why we have always managed to adapt and change with the times.
Finally, we want to introduce you to the core principle of Extension work: working knowledge. Our longstanding commitment to empowering people with knowledge to make practical, meaningful improvements in their lives and work is the central theme that runs through Extension’s history. It is the core principle of Cooperative Extension that unites present-day Extension educators with those who pioneered Extension work in the early 20th century. Understanding this core principle and how it relates to your own work will greatly enhance your effectiveness as an Extension professional.
I commend you on this journey you are about to take. Your experience as an Extension professional will inspire and challenge you in ways that you will remember for the rest of your life.
I wish you great success!
Writing her weekly report in June 1920, Uva Mae Hester, a registered nurse and Alabama Extension health educator, related a horrifying experience with one of her clients, a young woman and tuberculosis patient, bedridden for more than a year, suffering from openings in her chest and side as well as a bedsore the size of a human hand on her back.
Her family had made no provision to protect her from the flies that swarmed around her, Hester soberly related.
It was a sight that almost defies human comprehension in the 21st century but that was all too common among southerners, particularly impoverished black southerners, in early 20th century Alabama.
Hester, along with a team of other educators associated with Tuskegee Institute’s famed Movable School effort, led by an equally determined and resourceful agent named Thomas Campbell, were enlisted to mitigate as much of this suffering as possible. Working with the state’s health department, these educators fanned out across the state, not only to care for the chronically ill but also to show their families and neighbors what they could do to prevent the spread of tuberculosis and other unsafe, sometimes deadly, conditions.
Their efforts changed the face of this state, nation and world — a fact reflected in the work of a team of researchers, led by Nobel Prize recipient Robert W. Fogel, who compiled a wealth of information demonstrating how changes in the size and shape of the human body reflect the dramatic strides that have occurred in food production and human health and nutrition within the last 300 years. These changes are a result of the steady advances in nutrition, sanitation and medicine — progress owned in no small measure to Hester, Campbell and the thousands of Extension educators who have acquainted Americans with working knowledge that has not only improved but, in many cases, actually saved their lives.
All with improvements in nutrition, sanitation and medicine, Extension educators have played an equally critical role in helping the nation’s farmers the other technological feat that has secured longer, healthier lives: a cheap, diverse and highly abundant food supply.
Before these advances, colonial-era farmers worked some 78 over a five-and-a-half hour weeks. Farmers were trapped in an endless cycle of back-breaking drudgery: They desperately needed more food to grow in order to grow in order to gain strength, but they acute lack of strength prevented them from growing more food.
Advanced scientific farming methods broke this vicious cycle and changed the face of farming forever.
Likewise, the strong Cooperative Extension emphasis on adopting farm mechanization — replacing draft animals with farm machinery — ultimately helped free up millions of acres of agricultural land to supply human needs — land that had been previously tied up to feed farm animals.
How Cooperative Extension educators helped change the world as we know is part of the story we want tell. But the story is even bigger than that. We also want to show you how they did it — what they learned in the course of working with farmers and others that made all of this possible. Equally important, we want to show how the lessons they learned from working day in and day out their clients are just as valuable for us today as they were more than a century ago.
Part I: The Roots of Cooperative Extension
This section explores the role Cooperative Extension educators have played in advancing beneficial practical knowledge — working knowledge — to a preeminent place in American life. Beginning early in the last century, Extension educators undertook something quite remarkable in human terms: developing proven, effective ways to show ordinary people how they could use knowledge to make meaningful, lasting improvements in all facets of their lives — simply put, to live and work better.
Important Terms and Names to Remember:
- Working Knowledge
- Land-Grant Colleges
- Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890
- The Hatch Act of 1887
- Experiment Stations
- Seaman Knapp
- Booker T. Washington
- Movable Schools
- Corn and Tomato Clubs
- The Smith-Lever Act of 1914
What is Cooperative Extension?
The short answer to that question: a nationwide network of educators, operating at the state, regional and county levels and on behalf of the nation’s land-grant universities to provide people from diverse backgrounds with practical, research-based knowledge to improve all facets of their lives and their work. We call this practical, researched-based knowledge “working knowledge.”
Actually, while that definition works fine, the story behind it is a little more complicated. The Cooperative Extension System we know today actually began more as an impulse than an idea.
In the Beginning
“Instead of telling the farmer what to do, show him how to do and he will never forget it.” Booker T. Washington, principal, Tuskegee Institute
In the years immediately following the American Revolution, lots of farmers from all regions of the country were concerned about the need to share information — practical, working knowledge — to help them farm better and more profitably. This is not surprising considering that most everyone living in America farmed or, at least, was heavily dependent on farming.
The question remained — how? How could this knowledge be shared among a teeming population of people spreading rapidly across a vast continent?
The nation’s first president, George Washington, called for a coordinated national effort to collect and disperse vital farming information. The idea failed to gain traction, but that didn’t stop farmers from sharing on their own. They soon organized farmers clubs to discuss ways to improve farming.
In time, a growing number of public and private agricultural schools sprang up across the country. By the 1950s, several states even had established statewide agricultural schools to train farmers
Yet, the farm population continued to grow at a rapid clip and the challenge remained of getting working knowledge into the hands of farmers in the field. Privately run farmers clubs and state governments couldn’t diffuse this knowledge fast enough.
The Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1862
In 1862, Congress passed the Morrill Land-Grant Act, which granted each state 30,000 acres of public land for each of its Senate and House members. The states used the monies generated by sales of these lands to endow agricultural colleges to provide practical training in agriculture and engineering.
This 1862 legislation raised the first pillar of what is known today as the land-grant university system: land-grant colleges. Alabama Polytechnic Institute (now Auburn University), formerly East Alabama Male College, was established as the state’s 1862 land-grant university in 1872.
Challenges remained. Much of what initially was taught in these colleges was not based on scientific fact. This led to passage of the Hatch Act of 1887, which added the second pillar to the land-grant system — agricultural experiment stations operating in each state and carrying out research on behalf of land-grant colleges. These experiment stations were not only designed to enhance classroom instruction but also to provide scientific insights to farming practices that could benefit farmers in the field — in other words, to provide working knowledge.
The Second Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1890
Several years later, the Second Morrill Act of 1890 was adopted to provide black citizens in the former Confederate states with the same opportunities as whites—legislation that led to the development of a network of historically black land-grant universities.
Alabama’s first historically black land-grant institution, which later became Alabama A&M University, began operating as the Huntsville Normal School in 1875 with two instructors, 61 students and a state appropriation of $1,000. It went on to become a major institution of higher learning. Like many other historically black colleges and universities, AAMU developed a lasting reputation for working with underserved populations. It ultimately would form one of the two pillars of the nation’s first Extension System combining the Extension programs of a state’s 1862 and 1890 land-grant institutions.
Much of the groundwork had been laid, but the challenge remained of finding the most efficient way to get working knowledge into the hands of farmers and their families where they lived and worked. Two men stepped up to the challenge.
Seaman Knapp is widely viewed at the “father” of Cooperative Extension. He was a college instructor and administrator and the man credited with leading many of the efforts that eventually led to formal Cooperative Extension work. He developed a passion for farm demonstration work. Through his own experiences and observations, Knapp was convinced that merely observing work on a demonstration farm or reading a pamphlet weren’t strong enough incentives for farmers to adopt new ways. Farmers would only be convinced by observing demonstrations carried out by other farmers on their own farms.
By 1902, the government employed Knapp to use his demonstration methods to promote good agricultural practices throughout the American South. A growing number of states began hiring farm demonstration agents to assist with this work.
Booker T. Washington and the Movable School
The other influential Extension leader was Booker T. Washington, principal of the Tuskegee Institute, a private school that shared virtually all of the attributes of the agricultural land-grant school. Washington encountered many of the same challenges of trying to put practical knowledge into the hands of black farmers in rural Alabama. He organized the first Farmers Conference on Tuskegee’s campus in 1892, but he quickly discovered that many disadvantaged farmers were reluctant to come.
Eventually, Washington, along with famed researcher George Washington Carver, designed the Tuskegee Institute Movable School (also known as the Jesup Wagon in honor of Morris Jesup, the New York philanthropist who help fund it) to reach farmers with practical information where they lived and worked. The Movable School was originally equipped with several basic farm implements, including a milk separator, a milk tester, a plow, a cultivator, and various garden tools.
Thomas Monroe Campbell, a star student and recent Tuskegee graduate who was appointed to lead the Movable School effort, worked to introduce this Movable School concept and other outreach methods to other states and, in time, to other countries. The Movable School concept was later expanded to reach farmers’ spouses, who received practical knowledge about how to ease the burdens of home life.
Because his salary was drawn from several different sources, both public and private, Campbell is honored today as the first Cooperative Extension agent. This arrangement foreshadowed how Alabama Extension and other Extension programs throughout the country would be supported through all types of sources: federal, state and county appropriations, public and private partnerships and grants, and county donations of office space and utilities.
Indeed, as any Extension educator will proudly attest, we have been in the partnership business from the very beginning of our history, forging partnerships as freely with private as with public entities.
Corn and Tomato Clubs
Meanwhile, corn and tomato clubs were sprouting up in state after state, carrying out a kind of silent farming revolution. Club organizers reasoned that children were often more receptive to technological change than their parents. Fathers adopted farming techniques after noting their sons’ successes with raising corn. Meanwhile, mothers were learning canning and other food preservation techniques from their daughters. These corn and tomato clubs eventually grew into another successful Cooperative Extension program: 4-H.
The Smith-Lever Act of 1914
All of these efforts led to the Smith-Lever Act of 1914, which provided matching funds to establish a network of county farm educators in every state. These educators operated under the leadership of the state colleges of agriculture, adding the third pillar of the land-grant system: Cooperative Extension. Passage of the Smith-Lever Act sparked one of the most successful grassroots educational movements in history—a movement that was started by and for farmers but has since grown to address other needs ranging from home health to family care to gardening to nutrition and, more recently, to adapting to life in a diverse and urbanized world.
In Alabama, the state’s 1862 land-grant university, Auburn University, then known as Alabama Polytechnic Institute, was empowered by the Alabama Legislature to serve administer Extension programs in the state. It initially was known as the Alabama Extension Service and, later, as the Alabama Cooperative Extension Service.
Despite Tuskegee Institute’s pioneering role in Extension work, oversight of Tuskegee’s Extension program came under the direction of Alabama Polytechnic Institute in 1915. In a de facto sense, though, the so-called Negro Extension program remained somewhat autonomous under the direction of Thomas Campbell and other Tuskegee Extension educators.
Tuskegee Institute was not eligible to receive 1890 funds until 1972.
Spreading Its Wings (and Its Roots)
Even before passage of the Smith-Lever Act, educators and policymakers began noting the potential of Extension’s grassroots outreach model for solving other critical needs in addition to row-crop farming.
Eventually, the insights gained from working with row-crop farmers were extended to other facets of agriculture: livestock production, forestry and, in the decades to come, fisheries and aquaculture.
Alabama home demonstration work was formally undertaken in 1911 with the organization of girl’s tomato canning clubs and the hiring two part-time demonstration agents in Pike and Walker counties. Initial home demonstration efforts emphasized properly cooking and serving vegetable as well as effective food preservation.
In time, Extension educators expanded their outreach efforts to improve other facets of domestic farm life, such as providing running water, improving food selection and overall physical health, and developing more income from home-based enterprises, such as producing butter and eggs.
Extension also laid much of the groundwork for what would later be known as public health education To complement Tuskegee’s Movable School effort, Alabama Extension hired Tuskegee graduate and registered nurse Uva Mae Hester to provide public health assistance to rural residents. Foreshadowing the partnerships that would become a commonplace facet of Extension work, Tuskegee Institute’s resident hospital and Alabama State Health Department provided the subject matter Hester used on behalf of her clients, while Alabama Extension was responsible for her scheduling.
In the coming decades, Extension programming would be expanded to address not only nutritional and physical needs of families but also the psychological and financial challenges associated with modern family life.
The growth of corn Clubs constituted another major step toward the formalization of Cooperation Extension work.
In time, many Alabama club members began travelling to attend conferences with club members from other regions of the country.
Iowa club organizers are credited for associating clovers — initially, three-leaf clovers — with this burgeoning youth movement. Eventually a four-leaf clover symbol was adopted in 1918. By 1919, USDA administrators perceived the need for a national structure to sustain these club efforts. This provided the impetus for what later became known as 4-H, which developed into one of the most successful youth movements in human history.
Economic and Community Development
An interest in rural community development was first evinced in 1908, years before passage of the Smith-Lever Act of 1914, when the Rural Life Commission, which foreshadowed U.S. community development programming, cited community effort and social resources as a critical need in rural America. Six years later, the House Agricultural Committee’s report that accompanied the Smith-Lever bill expressed the need for county Extension educators to give leadership to “along all lines of rural activity” — rural, social and financial.
The commitment to economic and community development was several decades in the making. From a series of community resource development pilot projects from the 1950s and 1960s, Alabama Extension and other Cooperative Extension programs developed comprehensive statewide economic development programs to promote economic prosperity and an improved quality of life for communities.
Recent Alabama Extension Milestones
Alabama Extension undertook one of the most thoroughgoing reorganizations in its history in 2004.
Throughout the 20th century, the bulk of Extension programs were delivered through county agents — generalists who kept abreast of many different topics and delivered many kinds of programs.
However, at the start of the 21st century, a number of factors led Alabama Extension administrators to reassess the value of this approach. Among these factors was urbanization, a trend that not only had contributed to fewer farmers but that also profoundly altered perceptions of the roles Extension educators should be serving.
The rapid growth and influence of the Worldwide Web and other online media were also key factors.
Throughout the 20th century, Cooperative Extension prided itself on disseminating its research-based information quickly and efficiently using the prevailing technologies of the era — newspaper, radio, and television. However, with the increasing use of online media beginning in the 1990s, Alabamians and Americans in general were far more empowered to acquire information on their own.
Even so, administrators still perceived a critical role for Extension in helping people place all of this information within deeper, more enriched contexts. They reasoned that specialized agents operating at regional levels were better equipped to provide this type of enriched context than the county-based generalists.
In keeping with its longstanding tradition of serving Alabamians at the county level, ACES continues to operate offices in all 67 counties, each of which is headed by a coordinator who works with regional agents and other Extension personnel to deliver programs within these counties.
Changes in 2010
In 2010, ACES performed a periodic evaluation that consisted of a statewide survey of its grassroots stakeholders, which included representatives of partnering agencies, local citizens representing diverse socio-economic and cultural groups, potential new client groups, and community partners. Based on these responses, Alabama Extension administrators developed a five-year plant and identified six program initiatives that reflect the changing conditions in the state: health and wellness, workforce development, a safe and secure food supply, financial literacy, sustainable agriculture and forestry systems, and environmental stewardship.
Part II: Laying the Foundation
“Together, we’re engaged in the finest type of education anywhere and by any people. In brief, it is scientific and technical information for sound and practical people where they live and work.” P.O. Davis, Alabama Extension director, 1956.
Foundational Values: Research-based Knowledge, Relationships, and Relevance
With all three pillars of the land-grant system in place after passage of the Smith-Lever Act of 1914 — land-grant schools, experiment stations and Cooperative Extension — Extension educators went on to build one of the most distinctive and influential educational systems in human history.
Three distinct traits emerged over time— what we Alabama Extension educators describe as “The Three R’s” — that now comprise the underpinning of Cooperative Extension work:
- the research-based foundation of our mission;
- our strong emphasis on establishing positive working relationships with our clients as well as with communities, partners and stakeholders, and
- our longstanding commitment to developing relevant programs to address society’s most critical needs.
These three foundational values, always working in tandem and with the well-being of our diverse audiences firmly in mind, have inspired and equipped us to provide people from diverse backgrounds with the working knowledge required to make lasting, meaningful changes in all aspects of their lives.
Under the circumstances, is it any wonder why Extension work becomes an all-consuming passion for so many in our ranks?
The Three Traits of Effective Extension Educators: Confidence, Competence, and Credibility:
In the years immediately following passage of the Smith-Lever Act of 1914, Alabama Extension field educators dealt with a host of professional challenges. Their traveling days were often spent slogging down muddy Alabama roads on horses or in buggies — long days that typically ended in overnight stays at the home of the last farmer they visited.
Thomas Campbell recalls how he was often kept awake during these overnight visits by the presence of countless bedbugs.
Through it all, though, these pioneering educators were cultivating three traits that now form the standard for highly successful Extension educators: confidence, competency and credibility.
These educators gained professional confidence through the forging of close working relationships with farmers and, as Extension programming evolved and expanded over time, with their spouses and children.
Extension educators possessed one distinct asset in forging this new, revolutionary outreach model: the years of study they had invested in school. Even so, these credentials, impressive as they were at a time when few possessed college training, were not enough to carry the day.
As educators soon learned, these credentials didn’t guarantee professional competence among their clients. This professional standing was acquired only after these farmers and their families began making notable improvements in their lives based on the working knowledge these educators had worked so hard to impart to them. Through these material gains, farmers and their families developed a deep and abiding trust in and appreciation for the educational competence and professional credibility of these educators.
The steady material gains that grew out of these relationships with farmers and their families proved to be one of the most valuable lessons of Extension work. Through the daily grind of field work, Extension educators learned that professional credibility is earned through forging close working relationships with clients — relationships built on a foundation of openness and trust.
These insights also drove home another valuable lesson to educators: that Extension programming has always been results-driven — closely tied with securing tangible, positive changes secured on behalf of clients.
Part III: What Sets Us Apart?
Every Cooperative Extension program in the United States is unique in some respect. Each can point to some historical milestone or distinguishing feature that sets it apart from other programs.
For its part, Alabama Extension can point to several visionary Alabamians and programs that paved the way for much of what is defined today as Cooperative Extension work.
America’s First Cooperative Extension Agent
The Movable School which represents a milestone in Extension’s efforts to put working knowledge directly into the hands of farmers, also produced the man now honored as the nation’s first Cooperative Extension agent. Booker T. Washington appointed recent Tuskegee graduate Thomas Monroe Campbell to oversee the Movable School effort. The working agreement that secured his salary from both public and private funding sources served as the prototype for how most Extension agents would operate, drawing their support from all levels of government and, in many cases, from both public and private funding sources.
The Prototype for USDA/Land-Grant University Cooperation
Early experiments in Extension work in Alabama also served as the model for Extension work in other states. Seaman Knapp, appointed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to coordinate national Extension efforts, worked out an agreement with C.C. Thach, president of Alabama Polytechnic Institute, the state’s 1862 land-grant institution. Under this agreement, Extension work would be carried out jointly by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Alabama Polytechnic Institute. This agreement formed the basis for similar agreements with land-grant institutions in other states.
Luther Duncan, 4-H Pioneer
Luther Duncan, later an Alabama Extension director and president of Alabama Polytechnic University, was an early American 4-H pioneer, organizing boy’s Corn Clubs that grew to more than 10,000 members throughout Alabama. Duncan played an instrumental role organizing corn clubs throughout the state — a movement that eventually would be combined with girls clubs to form what later became known as 4-H.
P.O Davis, Educational Radio Pioneer
P.O. Davis, who later became Alabama Extension’s third director, was an early pioneer of educational radio, operating a radio station that initially broadcast out of Comer Hall on the Auburn campus. The first station, known as WMAV and established with a donation from The Birmingham News’s Victor Hanson, had little impact with its weak signal. However, in 1926, a new 1,000-watt station, known as WAPI, the Voice of Alabama, began broadcasting educational information to farmers, along with news and weather. In time, listening clubs were organized by Extension agents in outlying counties — a practices that anticipated the online educational sessions that are commonplace today.
Davis radio effort was a forerunner of the longstanding Extension tradition of using cutting-edge technology to reach diverse audiences with working knowledge.
The Historical Panorama of Alabama Agriculture
If any artistic work could be described as an attic treasure, it is the 10 murals comprising the Historical Panorama of Alabama Agriculture. The murals, rediscovered in the attic of Duncan Hall on the Auburn University campus in the early 1980s, were commissioned by Extension Director P.O. Davis for the 1939 Alabama State Fair to illustrate not only how agriculture had developed in Alabama but also how scientific farming methods were securing innovations and improvements despite the challenges stemming from Great Depression. These paintings are among the most treasured artifacts of Alabama Extension’s long legacy of outreach.
The Expanded Food Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP), which was pioneered in Alabama in the early 1960s, has built a legacy as one of this nation’s most effective food nutrition programs. Produce for Better Health Foundation has recognized it as the best federal program for improving nutrition through enhanced fruit and vegetable consumption. Alabama Extension’s EFNEP staff has reached a diverse population of almost 100,000 low-income Alabama families, more than 90 percent of whom have made positive changes in family nutrition.
The Nation’s First Unified Extension System
Today, the Alabama Cooperative Extension Systems serves as the primary outreach organization of the state’s 1862 and 1990 land-grant institutions, with Tuskegee University, a land-grant institution in all but name, as a vital cooperating partner.
This unified Extension System was some 80 years in the making. Following a landmark federal court decision in 1995, the Alabama Cooperative Extension System became the nation’s first unified Extension program to combine the resources of historically white Auburn University and the historically black Alabama A&M University. Tuskegee University, with its own unique history of Extension programming, was included as a cooperating partner. The catalyst was a landmark federal court ruling, known as Knight vs. Alabama, handed down by U.S. District Judge Harold Murphy.
This combined effort is headed by an Alabama Extension director appointed by the presidents of Alabama A&M and Auburn universities. The Extension director serves as the organization’s chief executive officer and maintains offices at both campuses.
In written remarks outlining his rationale for the ruling, Judge Murphy called for an expanded and updated Cooperative Extension mission that in addition to addressing traditional programming needs would also focus on the needs of a state population that had become more urbanized as well as racially and ethnically diverse. In addition to providing for an associate director for Rural and Traditional Programs based at Auburn University, Murphy also mandated that an associate director of Urban and New Nontraditional Programs be employed and housed at Alabama A&M University. This new associate director, Murphy stated, would be “expected to open new areas of Extension work and expand the outreach of the Alabama Cooperative Program to more fully serve all the people of Alabama.”
ACES has educators at Alabama A&M and Auburn universities and in 67 county offices, nine urban centers, six research and Extension Centers, two plant diagnostic laboratories, and state-of-the-art youth diagnostic center, and several other centers throughout the state.
Part IV: Why We Are Needed More than Ever
“It was the best of times and the worst of times…” wrote the beloved novelist Charles Dickens.
As Dickens so aptly expressed it with this timeless phrase, people have been learning to balance challenges with opportunities — the best of times and the worst of times — for as long as there have been people.
As we move into the 21st century, Extension educators and professionals are revamping their outreach methods, making greater use of social media and other new technologies to ensure that they continue to serve their audiences in the most effective ways possible.
The mission has changed but the underlying principle of Cooperative Extension has not: providing our diverse audiences with working knowledge, showing them how they can use it to live and work better and more profitably.
The challenges of the 21st century global information economy presents all of us with a bevy of challenges — not to mention, enormous opportunities. We Extension educators should be heartened by the fact that the values of this new era — mutual respect, openness, creativity and innovation —have been the hallmarks of Cooperative Extension work from the beginning of our history.
Respect, Openness and Creativity
These values were affirmed in the farm demonstration plots of Seaman Knapp, who encouraged feedback from and sharing among farmers. Likewise, they are reflected in the thinking behind Booker T. Washington’s Movable School. Washington had tried to solicit feedback from his growers at his annual farmer conferences held on the Tuskegee campus. However, so many of these farmers were in such awe of Washington’s standing in the black community that they were reluctant to speak out and share their views on farming and improving their lot. The Movable School concept was not only an attempt to impart information but also to solicit valuable feedback from farmers at the grassroots.
Along with this mutual respect and openness comes an enduring respect for creativity and innovation.
From the earliest years of our history, Extension educators created hotbeds of creativity and innovation. One especially notable example is the Extension-sponsored boll weevil eradication effort, which led to many other advances, including crop entomology, crop dusting and crop scouting, to name only a few.
Cooperative Extension programs also provided the basis for other advances in outreach and self-empowerment, including the U.S. Farm Bureau system, public health education, applied home economics, soil conservation and community economic development.
Granted, in the midst of economic uncertainty and stringent budget-cutting, a handful of people within and outside of our ranks fear that Cooperative Extension has passed its prime. Yet, a strong case can be made that our best years lie ahead of us.
Based on our history and our longstanding emphasis on openness and creativity, we still have enormous potential for reaching new audiences and helping assure the world becomes a safer, greener and happier place.
We Are Human Infrastructure!
We hear a lot about how infrastructure — roads, railways and airport terminals, to name a few examples — has contributed greatly to the material progress of our nation. In recent years, we have witnessed a renewed emphasis on the need to build even more of this infrastructure to keep pace with the rising challenges of a global economy.
Extension educators constitute the most valuable of all infrastructure — the flesh-and-bone variety — human infrastructure.
The infrastructure Cooperative Extension has routinely provided for decades through its networks of grassroots educators will be more important than ever in the 21st century, as farming gears up to feed a projected 9.5 billion people by mid-century using less cropland and water and faced with spiking fuel and fertilizer costs. The challenges farmers face are daunting: They are being called to meet these new demands even as they expected to develop safer, greener production systems with more emphasis on organically and locally grown foods.
Extension is uniquely equipped through its history and through its longstanding emphasis on relevant, research-based to help farming make this transition.
Yet, the enduring value of Cooperative Extension is by no means limited to farming. For example, nutrition educators are working to address one of the most serious health epidemics of the 21st century — rising levels of obesity among Americans of all ages and the chronic diseases that typically accompany it. Meanwhile, their counterparts in food safety are striving to educate Americans about the risks of eating from an international table comprised of some foods that are neither produced nor processed in accordance with the hygienic practices commonly taken for granted in the United States.
For their part, forestry educators are equipped Alabama landowners will the tools to deal with the increasing threat that invasive species plant species pose to forestland understories and, ultimately, to trees.
These are only a few of the many ways Extension educators are providing human infrastructure to help Alabamians deal with present-day challenges.
Collaborative Knowledge and Our Role in It
Throughout the world collaborative knowledge — so-called open-sourced, shared knowledge reflected in the online encyclopedia Wikipedia — is being adopted by everyone from global companies to educational institutions.
Yet, isn’t working knowledge — the collaborative, empowering knowledge that has characterized Cooperative Extension work for the past century — a forerunner of this collaborative approach? Wasn’t this kind of sharing foreshadowed in Seaman Knapp’s demonstration plots and the Movable Schools of our own Booker T. Washington?
Thanks to its unique history and experiences, we Extension educators have another asset to bring to the table. Despite the seemingly inexhaustible sources of information now available via Internet search engines, Extension educators possess something these applications still lack: the ability to provide our diverse audiences with information in deep, enriched contexts. We help our audiences not only understand knowledge within a wide learning context but also how to use it to enhance their lives in lasting, meaningful ways — back to that core principle: working knowledge.
This is why, despite all the challenges facing us, we are living up to the highest aspiration of our forebears. Roughly a century ago, we helped integrate a technologically challenged farming sector into an integral and vital part of the U.S. economy. In the process, we transformed farming into one of the most successful, envied and emulated enterprises in the world. Through the efforts of pioneering home demonstration agents and the public health, nutritional and family life educators who came later, we lifted countless Alabamians out of malnutrition and material want. Through our Nontraditional and Urban programs, we are introducing new audiences to opportunities for learning and self-empowerment. Through a century of 4-H programming, we have inspired generations of young people to reach beyond their perceived limitations to a broad horizon of almost boundless opportunities. Through our economic development programs, we are restoring hope to many hard-pressed Alabama communities.
We continue to succeed because of something the earliest generation of Extension pioneers set out to do generations ago: to be more than simple purveyors of knowledge. They strove to become knowledge enablers who add valuable to knowledge by demonstrating how practical, meaningful and lasting use can be derived from it — working knowledge.
This is the proud and enduring legacy that we will carry through the 21st century.