Tuesday Talks With Dr. Patterson

November 11, 2014


This year marks the one-hundredth anniversary of the passage of the Smith-Lever Act on May 8, 1914. The Smith-Lever Act established federal funding, matched by state and local funds, to support cooperative extension activities in each state and territory affiliated with the land-grant institutions established through the Morrill Act. The intent was to provide education to the public as a way of transmitting new knowledge and discoveries from the land-grant institutions to the people of the state in order to enhance economic productivity and improve lives.

As a concept, extension was influenced by several factors from the time period of the passage of the Act. Some credit the recommendations of the Commission on Country Life as the genesis for the Smith-Lever Act. In 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt appointed this commission to “make rural civilization as effective and satisfying as other civilization” (Bailey). Based on this recommendation, Georgia senator Michael Hoke Smith and South Carolina representative A. Frank Lever, co-sponsored the Act in 1914. Lever was a trustee at Clemson University and was committed to improving agriculture in South Carolina and the United States. Clemson had already established a form of extension that was often referred to as the “Clemson Model” (Clemson Cooperative Extension). Senator Smith’s interest in extension was possibly influenced by the actions of Walter B. Hill, who served as chancellor of the University of Georgia. Hill was strongly influenced by the democratic access to education offered by the land-grant institutions and the Progressivism Movement of the time, which called on educational institutions to offer practical solutions to the problems facing individuals and businesses. The Progressivism Movement was particularly pronounced at the University of Wisconsin. To advance his agenda in shaping the future of the University of Georgia, Hill chartered a train to travel from Georgia to Madison, Wisconsin to allow 100 influential Georgians to visit the University of Wisconsin (Dyer). Some also site Seaman Knapp as the father of the extension movement. Knapp served as the Chair of Agriculture at Iowa State Agricultural College from 1879 to 1883 and later as president of Iowa State from 1883 to 1884. He left Iowa in 1885 for Louisiana and later established the first agricultural demonstration farm in Terrell, Texas (Iowa State University). However, Alabama has its own link to the development of the extension, notably through the efforts of famed agricultural scientist, George Washington Carver at Tuskegee University. As early as 1906, Carver built moveable classrooms, named Jesup wagons, to be used in demonstrating new agricultural discoveries to farmers in rural Alabama (Tuskegee University). 

Through the years, extension, along with research, has played a critical role in increasing the productivity of agriculture in the United States. In 2011, U.S. agricultural production was 2.5 the production levels seen in 1948 with input usage only growing by 4 percent over this same time period (USDA Economic Research Service). Extension has played an important role in promoting the adoption of new technologies and advancing the diffusion of knowledge which influences practices and techniques. While it is difficult to disentangle the influence of research from the education role played by extension, past studies have placed the internal rate or return on public investments in extension in the range of 16 percent to 110 percent (Wang).

Today, extension continues to play an important role in agriculture and our communities. However, the landscape has changed significantly since 1914. Today, many of the agricultural technologies adopted by producers are developed by private industry and producers often turn to the suppliers of their inputs for advice on production practices. Similarly, in some sectors of agriculture, producers operate under production contracts with processors or retailers and are obligated to follow the production recommendations of these integrators or buyers. Furthermore, the diffusion of knowledge or information has become much more efficient through the Internet and mobile devices. Still, agricultural producers continue to look to extension for unbiased, objective input on technologies and best practices. Extension plays a particularly important role in issues that link agriculture to the environment and the protection of natural resources, which is important to all citizens. Furthermore, extension’s mission is not limited to transfer of knowledge related to agriculture. It also develops educational programs related to forestry and natural resources, community and economic development, family welfare and health, youth development, and home gardens and landscapes. In short, it is still working to enhance economic productivity and improve lives.



Bailey, L.H. The Country-Life Movement in the United States. New York: Macmillan Co., 1920.

Clemson Cooperative Extension. 100 Year Anniversary of Cooperative Extension. http://www.clemson.edu/extension/100/ (Accessed November 4, 2014).

Dyer, T.G. “Understanding the American Outreach University: Retrospect and Prospect.” IHE Report, Autumn 2006: 10-15.

Iowa State University. History of Iowa State: People of Distinction: Seaman Asahel Knapp. http://www.public.iastate.edu/~isu150/history/knapp.html (Accessed November 4, 2014).

Tuskegee University. Legacy of George Washington Carver. http://www.tuskegee.edu/about_us/legacy_of_fame/george_w_carver.aspx (Accessed November 4, 2014).

USDA Economic Research Service. Agricultural Productivity in the United States. http://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/agricultural-productivity-in-the-us.aspx (Accessed November 4, 2014).

Wang, Sun Ling. “Cooperative Extension System: Trends and Economic Impacts on U.S. Agriculture.” Choices, 1st Quarter 2014. 29(1) http://www.choicesmagazine.org/choices-magazine/submitted-articles/cooperative-extension-system-trends-and-economic-impacts-on-us-agriculture


Dr. Paul Patterson is associate dean for instruction for the College of Agriculture and Professor of Agricultural Economics.