May 29, 2011

A century of Cooperative Extension

This year marks the 100th Anniversary of the Cooperative Extension system in the United States. And it all began in New York State's Broom County.

It quickly spread and soon there were Extension offices in counties all over the state and throughout the country. Prior to the late 1800s, there was no organized educational or outreach system aimed at the nation's farmers and rural population. While a majority of the population lived in the country and agriculture was still by far the nation's leading industry at the time, there was little in the way of research or education related to agriculture. The Extension system was a simple and practical idea to connect the knowledge, resources and research of University with the people of New York State.

When President Lincoln signed the Morrill Act in 1862, it led to the establishment of the Land-Grant Universities. Ezra Cornell, founder of Cornell University, was instrumental in this legislation. The Morrill Act stated that these universities would "teach agriculture and mechanical arts to the sons and daughters of the masses … but not to the exclusion of the arts and humanities."

This was the first time that institutions of higher learning would help farmers solve problems, build their farms and improve their communities.

Cornell University first started reaching out to farmers in 1876 with professors doing extramural teaching with farmers to help solve the challenges they faced. Within 10 years, it evolved into university organized Farmers' Institutes, state-funded outreach programs built around research and education.

The university followed that up in 1900 by developing a home-economics program, which provided accessible learning opportunities for women and their families. This early outreach formed the foundation upon which New York State's extension system would grow and develop.

At the beginning, it was called the Clinton County Farm Bureau Association. As far as I can tell, the first county agent was a man named Charles Burritt Tillson, a 1907 graduate of Cornell University. His report to the county Board of Supervisors in 1916 illustrates the diversity of agriculture that existed at that time. Small grains such as oats and wheat were still a major crop at that time and test plots of alfalfa were showing that it was indeed possible to grow alfalfa successfully in Clinton County.

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