By Tim Schwab
This summer marks the 100-year anniversary of cooperative extension, maybe the oldest federal agricultural program you’ve never heard of. Awkwardly named, “extension” was established by Congress in 1914 to help disseminate the groundbreaking agricultural research produced by our public, land-grant universities.
In its earliest years, extension showed its potential to shape American agriculture, partnering with farmers, consumers and universities to develop and share best products and practices. That same potential exists today, but eroding federal support and growing corporate influence threaten to undermine it. Through a series of blogs in the weeks ahead, we’ll examine whether extension today is fulfilling its original mission set by Congress.
As extension turns 100, state programs around the country are celebrating their early successes. The University of Florida is highlighting the work of extension to inoculate hogs during a cholera epidemic in 1915. The University of Arizona, only two-years of age when extension came into force, is reflecting on extension’s important role in “…bringing science to bear on practical problems…and help[ing] transform this land that we call Arizona from a raw wild western frontier of 100 years ago into the vibrant place we call Arizona today…”
Fast-forward 100 years, and the “science” really is bearing down on our broken food system, as technologies like GMOs and the factory farm model dominate American agriculture and the public health and environmental consequences of this system become ever more apparent.
Yet, you can still find good examples of extension working to improve our food system. Organic food production, one of the fastest growing sectors in agriculture, is getting some love from extension through a program called eOrganic, designed to share best practices with organic producers via the internet. In addition, many land-grant schools, including Cornell, Iowa State and the University of Georgia, conduct outreach through their extension offices on organic agriculture.
Many states also now offer much-needed assistance to small and mid-sized animal producers through a program called the Niche Meat Processors Assistance Network.Because a handful of companies now slaughter and sell most of the cattle, pigs and poultry in the United States, small producers struggle to find the USDA-inspected slaughter facilities necessary for processing animals for commercial markets. By promoting innovative programs like mobile slaughter units that bring the abattoir to the farm and training programs on food safety rules, this extension program helps smaller producers get a fighting chance to enter a marketplace controlled by a handful of meatpackers.
While these efforts are valuable and indicative of the power and potential of extension to transform agriculture, they are also, unfortunately, too rare, and they don’t get at the most pressing problems in agriculture, like growing corporate power. That’s because the public mission that Congress intended for our land-grant universities and extension offices has been weakened or reinterpreted over the decades, and cooperative extension today appears to do as much, or more, to help corporate agribusiness as it does to help farmers.
Mending our broken food system also requires fixing the outreach efforts of extension and the research agenda of our land-grant universities. Stay tuned for more about that in the weeks ahead, but, in the meantime, take a look at Food & Water Watch’s report, Public Research, Private Gain.