The next 100 years: Extension marks centennial, innovates for the future

Smith-Lever Act of 1914 established the cooperative extension system

Ralph Watts, dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences, talked to Butler County producers during a farmers' field day in 1916. Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- A century ago, Congressmen M. Hoke Smith, of Georgia, and Asbury Lever, of South Carolina, sponsored legislation to enhance the nation's land-grant university system created by the Morrill Act more than 50 years earlier.

Signed into law on May 8, the Smith-Lever Act of 1914 established the cooperative extension system, with federal, state and county governments partnering with land-grant institutions, such as Penn State, to translate and share scientific information with those who could put that knowledge to work on farms and in communities across the country.

The practical advances spawned by this act have revolutionized the production and consumption of food and fiber, making the United States a model for agricultural technology transfer around the world. But as the extension system marks its centennial, its leaders acknowledge that it must continue to adapt and innovate in the face of such challenges as rising global food demand and hunger, natural and fiscal resource scarcity, and environmental risk.

Extension is at a turning point in its illustrious history, explained Dennis Calvin, director of Penn State Extension and associate dean in the College of Agricultural Sciences. The "Greatest Generation" is disappearing, and the baby boomers who make up the largest portion of extension's audience are rapidly leaving the workforce.

"Up to 60 percent of baby boomers could be retired in five to 10 years, and soon they'll be our past customers," he said. "We need to target the next generation of learners. In general, the way Generation X'ers and Millennials want to learn, access information and engage is far different from earlier generations."

"Regardless of urban or rural, every citizen who eats has a connection to the food system."      -- Dennis Calvin, director of Penn State Extension

Demographic shifts, he pointed out, also mean that fewer people now live in rural, agricultural settings, and less than 2 percent of the population is directly involved in agriculture. "People have migrated toward urban areas, leaving behind an aging rural population and creating economic challenges for communities," he said. "We need to help address that, but regardless of urban or rural, every citizen who eats has a connection to the food system."

Ultimately, Calvin said, extension's role is to develop useful, research-based information and provide that to its customers to make a difference in their lives. "But how we do that is changing. An erosion in government appropriations means we have fewer people than we did in the past to do that job. At the same time, technology really has taken off at warp speed. Our challenge is that we don't want to be riding a chariot while the rest of the world moves like the starship Enterprise."

To better serve customers, expand access to educational programs and supplement traditional funding sources, Penn State Extension is poised to launch a new way of doing business. At the core of this new model are extension's educational "product lines": face-to-face workshops and online courses, print and electronic publications and newsletters, how-to videos, webinars, mobile apps and so forth.

"As we implement the new business model, we'll carefully evaluate existing and proposed new products," Calvin said. "Is a product filling a demonstrated need? Is it in the most appropriate format? What types of products and delivery modes will help us reach new people -- regardless of where they are -- and expand our customer base?"

A comprehensive strategy based on customer needs will drive educational product development, and integrated technologies will allow people to get what they want, how and when they want it.

Dairy producer Mike Yoder uses Penn State Extension's DairyCents application on his smart phone. Mobile apps, webinars and online publications are some of the ways extension information reaches audiences anytime, anywhere. Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

"We had nearly 6 million visits to our college's websites last year," Calvin said. "As clients enter through the Web or our online registration system, we'll be able to make them aware of other offerings on the same or similar subjects. We'll look at customer interactions as touch points to better understand their needs, build relationships and ultimately provide them a connection to our educational opportunities."

Calvin stressed that moving into a more global marketplace will not be accomplished at the expense of the important local connections Penn State Extension maintains by keeping a presence in each Pennsylvania county. Throughout a recent reorganization that instituted statewide program teams and a district administrative structure, many conversations took place with government and industry stakeholders at the county and state levels.

"Most folks we've talked to understand that the old place-based model is changing," he said. "It's less about 'boots on the ground' and more about access to a broad range of products that can be brought to the county via multiple channels, whether it's face-to-face meetings, webinars, 24/7 Web access or a workshop in a neighboring county that you know about because of some of the new information technology that we're launching."

As this evolution unfolds, the one constant will be extension's ability to combine scientific research with practical, field-based experience to craft solutions to the problems people face.

While Penn State Extension expands the ways it reaches audiences, local, face-to-face workshops -- such as this York County pasture-production session by agronomy educator John Rowehl -- remain an effective tool to transfer knowledge. Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

"When I was an entomology faculty member, I did research on corn insect pest management, collaborated with scientists around the country and packaged that knowledge for delivery to growers," Calvin recalled. "But once in the field, we found that the science only takes us so far, and things don't always happen the way it says in the book.

"Insect behavior and crop injury are influenced by different pest complexes, weather and cropping systems, and the farmer knows his fields better than anyone else," he said. "You can't just say, 'Here's a sheet of recommendations, if you follow these it will work.' The system always has worked best when you're engaged with your customer -- sort of a group-science approach."

That's the power of Penn State Extension and that isn't changing. "But the ways in which we engage our customers are evolving rapidly," Calvin said. "We need to adapt to changing demands and not simply live off the legacy of the last 100 years. We're building the foundation to do that now."

An early Penn State Extension agent's Boys' Corn Club, a forerunner of extension's 4-H youth development program Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

Last Updated May 07, 2014