All universities engage in research and teaching, but the nation’s more than 100 land-grant colleges and universities, have a third critical mission—extension. “Extension” means “reaching out,” and—along with teaching and research—land-grant institutions “extend” their resources, solving public needs with college or university resources through non-formal, non-credit programs.
These programs are largely administered through thousands of county and regional extension offices, which bring land-grant expertise to the most local of levels. And both the universities and their local offices are supported by NIFA, the federal partner in the Cooperative Extension System (CES). NIFA plays a key role in the land-grant extension mission by distributing annual Congressionally appropriated formula grants to supplement state and county funds. NIFA affects how these formula grants are used through national program leadership to help identify timely national priorities and ways to address them.
Congress created the extension system nearly a century ago to address exclusively rural, agricultural issues. At that time, more than 50 percent of the U.S. population lived in rural areas, and 30 percent of the workforce was engaged in farming. Extension’s engagement with rural America helped make possible the American agricultural revolution, which dramatically increased farm productivity:
In 1945, it took up to 14 labor-hours to produce 100 bushels of corn on 2 acres of land.
By 1987, it took just under 3 labor-hours to produce that same 100 bushels of corn on just over 1 acre.
In 2002, that same 100 bushels of corn were produced on less than 1 acre.
That increase in productivity has allowed fewer farmers to produce more food.
Fewer than 2 percent of Americans farm for a living today, and only 17 percent of Americans now live in rural areas. Yet, the extension service still plays an important role in American life—rural, urban, and suburban. With its unprecedented reach—with an office in or near most of the nation’s approximately 3,000 counties—extension agents help farmers grow crops, homeowners plan and maintain their homes, and children learn skills to become tomorrow’s leaders.
Despite the decline in the population and and economic importance of rural America , the national Cooperative Extension System remains an important player in American life. It increasingly addresses urban, suburban, in addition to rural issues, and it has responded to information technology changes in America by developing a national Web presence.