One thing we’ve learned in writing about government is how extensive federalism is. Another thing we’ve learned is that federalism often follows a pattern, with the federal government offering financial resources, expertise, and coordination, and state and local partners adding local knowledge, relationships, and infrastructure. When governments work together in this way—and follow best practices—they can accomplish big things, from helping regions recover from natural disasters and reducing air and water pollution to building a safety net for laid off workers and creating a network of higher-education institutions focused on practical knowledge.
Here’s another shining example of federalism at work: cooperative extension.
Never heard of it? It may be because you live in a city. If you lived in a rural area, you’d almost certain know about cooperative extension, although you might know it as agricultural extension or even the county agent.
Regardless of where you live, stick with us because cooperative extension offers a model of intergovernmental cooperation that could be applied to other issues, including the problems of people living in cities and suburbs. And it’s not just its design that’s important. Since the 1950s, scholars studying how communities learn and adapt have focused on cooperative extension because of its remarkable success in helping people discover new technologies and methods.
So what is cooperative extension? It’s a century-old effort to help American farmers learn better ways of growing crops, tending livestock, and caring for their land. It does this through 2,900 cooperative extension offices around the country, mostly serving rural areas. (Though not exclusively. There’s a cooperative extension office in New York City.)
The people working in these offices are extension agents. Their job is to connect farmers with agricultural innovations in group meetings or by driving into the countryside to meet with individual farmers.
So, has it worked? Have farmers accepted innovations that improved yields and saved labor? Absolutely. American farm production has nearly tripled since 1948, even as farm acreage declined by 28 percent and farm labor by 76 percent. The average farmer in 1940 fed 18.5 people. Today’s American farmer feeds 164 people.
It’s impossible to say precisely how much credit for this growth in productivity belongs with the cooperative extension system. But studies of developing countries that use extension services modeled on America’s suggest it is “one of the main conduits of addressing rural poverty and food insecurity.”
So how did cooperative extension get started? And why is it such a good example of federalism?
Before we get to these questions, a little global perspective. Agriculture has been a concern of governments since ancient times because so much depends on good harvests. Thousands of years ago, Chinese officials documented and taught farming techniques, even advocating a form of crop rotation in 800 B.C.
In Europe, British officials responded to the Irish potato famine of the 1840s by hiring “practical instructors” to tour farms, teaching farmers about alternative crops.
In the U.S., farmers were so enthusiastic about learning new planting, tending, and harvesting methods that, in the late 1860s, they banded together in a number of states to teach each other, usually meeting in winter months. And they lobbied their states and the federal government to help with this learning.
It was about this same time that the federal government partnered with states to create of the land-grant colleges, which we wrote about in an earlier entry. These colleges were dedicated to the teaching of practical knowledge, including engineering, science, and agriculture. This meant that, for the first time, students could go to state colleges to learn about soil science (basically, what makes land suitable for crops), livestock breeding and nutrition, and plant biology—or to learn veterinary medicine.
This helped create a vast industry serving farmers, from seed companies and farm implement makers to veterinarians and fertilizer companies. But most farmers don’t attend college, and those that do usually don’t return to the family farm. So having an agriculture school at a state university may build a stronger agricultural industry without actually changing farming itself.
That’s why in 1887 Congress took a second step toward helping farmers by partnering with states to create agricultural extension stations that worked in conjunction with the land-grant colleges. These stations (there are 600 around the country) focused on crops and livestock grown locally, looking for improvements to existing crops or new crops and livestock that might thrive there.
When the stations were set up at the turn of the century, farmers could visit them to see what was grown, and how they were tended, and to meet researchers. Even so, it required long trips on poor roads. Affluent farmers might take the time and money to travel; poorer ones could not.
So in 1914 Congress took the final step of creating county extension offices, with the federal government paying roughly half the cost and state and local governments making up the rest. The agents’ job: Learn what researchers in college agriculture schools and extension stations were finding, meet the farmers in their county, and pass the knowledge from scientists to farmers.
What kind of knowledge? Over the course of the 20th century, extension agents introduced farmers to mechanized equipment like the tractor that revolutionized farm productivity; new fertilizers that vastly increased yields; hybrid corn and other plant varieties that resisted diseases; and farm chemicals that reduced pests, plant diseases, and even weeds. They brought information about new markets, including overseas markets. In recent decades, county agents helped farmers learn about information technology. Today, farmers use smartphone and tablet apps to track crops and livestock and manage their land.
And that’s not all. Extension agents organized clubs called 4-H for farmers’ children and taught vegetable canning and cooking skills to farmers’ spouses. As some of the rural areas became more suburban late in the 20th century, county agents moved from farming to gardening. If you community has a Master Gardener program, it’s almost certainly a product of the county’s cooperative extension office.
Along the way, sociologists discovered these government employees working in remote areas, teaching innovation and skills to farmers. What attracted their interest was the agents’ success in getting some of America’s most conservative and skeptical people to try new things.
The leading scholar in this field was Everett M. Rogers, a sociologist who began by studying extension agents in Iowa and ended up looking at similar efforts around the world. Some of what Rogers wrote about in his master work, “Diffusion of Innovations,” has become part of our business vocabulary. If you’ve heard the term “early adopters,” it comes from his book. As Rogers found, farmers fell into five categories when it came to accepting new ideas: innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority, and laggards.
Innovators would try almost anything an extension agent suggested. Early adopters would take some persuading but were open to change. The majority would wait for others to pave the way, then gradually follow. And laggards would stick with the old ways until forced to change, often because they couldn’t find replacements when something broke. (If you have a friend who still has a flip phone, you know the type.)
The key, Rogers found, lay in persuading the early adopters, who were open to change but needed to be shown the benefits. And because they were cautious but open-minded, they tended to be respected in their community. If they began using hybrid corn and saw increased yields, others (the early majority and late majority farmers) followed sooner or later.
Are there other places in America today where people lack access to information and practices that could improve their lives? Things that could make them wealthier, healthier, or simply happier? Methods proven first through research that need explanation and maybe demonstration?
Undoubtedly there are. It could be teaching families about exercise and healthy eating habits. Or teaching families about savings programs that could help them put aside money for retirement, college, or home ownership. Or teaching people with an interest in starting a businesses about accounting, finance, market research, customer service, and business planning.
As it is today, cooperative extension may not be the right vehicle for teaching these things, but it offers the right model: Deliver at the grassroots level; use experiment stations to demonstrate what the agents are advocating; connect everything back to the state’s land-grant colleges. The federal government pays some of the costs, states and localities pay the rest and find agents who could be effective in urban neighborhoods and suburban communities.
Would it work? In the 20th century, extension agents transformed American agriculture. Imagine what they could do—or someone using the cooperative extension playbook could do—in the 21st century working in places where the vast majority of today’s Americans live.
Give the credit to: federal government 60%, state governments 30%, local governments 10%
Photo by Brian Boucheron licensed under Creative Commons.