100 years of ‘educational opportunities for the common man’

FARGO, North Dakota — The grubby, dirty work of agricultural extension isn’t a major public issue in the United States today, but at one time it was a key national concern.

“Abraham Lincoln signed that legislation in the middle of the civil war,” said Chris Boerboom, the director of extension at North Dakota State University.

“I think that is pretty remarkable that our legislative leaders at that time had that foresight for the country during that type of crisis.”

Across the U.S. Midwest and Great Plains states “land grant” universities are celebrating 100 years of extension services, which includes agriculture, home economics and various forms of rural community assistance and education.

The land grant universities are a network of government-funded institutions designed to provide “educational opportunities for the common man.” They were opened across the U.S. in the decades after the Morrill Act created legislative support in 1862.

While they have been established across the country, it’s in the “farm states” where they have been and still are major influences.

The term comes from the land grants given to nascent universities to serve as endowments. Since then, the universities have grown far beyond the undergraduate colleges first conceived.

To generate applied research projects to help pioneer families, the U.S. Congress passed the 1887 Hatch Act, creating experimental stations. However, a crucial gap between researchers and farmers became apparent. In 1914, the Smith-Lever Act was passed, creating the network of extension workers that has become a central part of land grant universities.

“A hundred years ago, some of our agents were getting out to the producers using Model-Ts and motorcycles,” said Boerboom, sitting in his office in the Morrill building on the NDSU campus, as he got ready to head to western North Dakota for an extension research session.

“Now we’re connecting with producers using social media.”

The internet and high speed communication means that distant farmers and university-based researchers can easily and quickly interact. But Boerboom said he doesn’t want to see those new tools undermine in-person communication.

“I think it’s so critical for us to be present locally on the farm, walking the fields, local meetings, local workshops, because what’s happening here in Fargo, North Dakota, is so much different than what’s happening in Washburn (about 370 kilometres west of Fargo).”

“We’re really proud to be a county-based program to maintain that local connection and I truly believe that is part of what will continue to make us successful, even in this digital age, that local touch,” he said.

Like the U.S. farm states, Canadian provinces have extensive extension networks. But unlike U.S. states, most prairie provinces offer extension through provincial agriculture de-partments.

However, these agriculture departments aren’t conducting most public research. Provincial government-employed extension officers work closely with university researchers, while university agriculture departments and Agriculture Canada re-searchers offer field days and are present at farm meetings and conferences.

While Canada has a hybrid extension system dominated by provincial governments, Boerboom said U.S. state agriculture departments play little role with extension.

“Its function is regulatory,” he said about the North Dakota agriculture department. “Their function isn’t as an educator. So the educational role really resides within the university system within the land grant system.”

With drones and complex rotations and production systems, he said there is still a need for extension help.

Producers can be challenged by the new technology of precision agriculture, while others are pressured by the booming oil economy of western North Dakota and the depopulation of eastern North Dakota farm towns.

But while methods have changed over the past century, Boerboom said he sees more demand than ever.

“It’s a neat history,” he said.

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