Extension Service: A Historical Perspective


Our History 

Iowa's Cooperative Extension Service provides the link by which the results of research conducted at Iowa's Land Grant University are made available to those who have use for the information.

By the mid-1800s. a movement was well underway to create colleges for the education of the "sons and daughters of the working classes." This movement resulted in legislation in 1862 creating the Land Grant College System. Iowa was the first state to accept the provisions of the law for its frontier college in Ames, Iowa. The original legislation made an annual allocation of funds to support the colleges, provided funding for colleges for black students, and made the system available to new states joining the union.

Because of the strong agricultural orientation of the United States, agriculture was one of the main courses of study at the newly-established people's colleges. Quickly it became evident that a scientific research capability was needed at the colleges. This need grew and in 1887 Congress passed legislation providing funds for the states to create agricultural research stations.  The stage was set for the creation of the Extension Service.

A number of states, including, Iowa, had attempted various methods to encourage farmers to adopt new farming methods and techniques. In many cases, these extension-type efforts depended on the interest of a particular college instructor, an inquiry from a particular group of people or some sort of crisis. In 1914 Congress enacted the Smith-Lever Act creating the Extension Service. It was to be a partnership with the United States Department of Agriculture and the states. Funds were made available to each state if the state provided matching funds.

Extension Service: The Iowa Scene

As Iowa was a leader in the Land Grant College movement, so also has Iowa provided leadership to the extension movement. About as early as students started attending classes at the frontier campus in Ames, informal educational activities were being taken off campus. In 1869, for example, a farmers' short course was conducted in Black Hawk County. In 1903, the first county-wide farm demonstration was established in Sioux County. The demonstration was established at the request of local farmers, and received support from the state and federal governments through Iowa's Land Grant College.  In 1906, the Iowa Legislature enacted the Agricultural Extension Act making funds available for demonstration projects. It is believed this was the first specific legislation establishing state extension work.

By 1912, the need for full-time extension agents was becoming apparent. In response, the legislature enacted the Farm Aid Association Act in 1913. The law permitted and later required, each county to appropriate funds for county extension work. The bill required each county to have a local sponsor and the county Farm Bureau filled that role. When the Smith-Lever Act was passed by Congress in 1914, Iowa was ready to accept the provisions and benefits of the new law. By 1918, each Iowa county had a county extension worker in place. Staff positions were soon developed to provide leadership for home economics and 4-H program efforts.

The legal framework for extension remained relatively unchanged from 1914 until 1955. At that time, the current County Agricultural Extension Law was enacted by the Iowa Legislature. This law created the county extension councils as the local governing boards replacing the local Farm Bureau boards and established a local tax to support extension efforts.  In 1990, the law was amended to significantly change the council election process. Specifically the size of the county extension councils was set at nine members to be elected at-large as a part of the general election.

Through the years, a set of principles has developed to provide overall guidance for extension work:

  1. The function of the Extension Service is to make the knowledge base of the Land Grant University available to the people of the state.
  2. Extension programs are directed to improve the lives of people through education.
  3. The responsibility of identifying, planning and directing a program based on the needs of people is shared with the local elected council.
  4. The legal framework for Extension provides stability but also flexibility, which enhances local program initiatives.
  5. The partnership concept upon which Extension is based requires continual nurturing.

Source: "Cooperative Extension Work in Iowa and Provisions of the County Extension Law" Iowa State University Extension Publication I (RMA)1/revised September 1991

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