Five generations of the Severson family have farmed in Grundy County, Illinois since 1866 — the same decade the U.S. land-grant university system was created to broaden higher education’s availability. Cooperative Extension became its national outreach arm in 1914.
During the last century, farming has evolved on what is today Brian Severson Farms Inc. And the tools Extension uses to assist farmers such as Severson have also changed to meet farmer needs.
“A major emphasis has been given to expanding local and regional food systems to provide fresh, high-quality produce,” says Frankie Gould, Louisiana State University (LSU) AgCenter communications director and professor. Gould has written extensively about Extension’s history.
That’s music to Brian Severson’s ears. He farms with his wife, Karen, and their children, near Dwight, Ill. He began farming in 1989, raising corn, soybeans and pigs. Now, they raise only non-GM (genetically modified) corn and soybeans and are slowly converting some acreage to organic production.
“We transitioned 20 acres into organic production in 2004, and we now have 150 certified acres,” he says. “We focus on raising sweet corn, popcorn, hulless oats and wheat.”
Severson has 50,000 bushels of on-farm grain storage, high-temperature grain-drying capabilities and a certified organic seed/grain cleaning and weighed bagging facility, all on the farm.
“We have the capacity to harvest, pack and cool 3 tons of sweet corn per morning,” he says. “We’re still small enough we can pick the corn at its ideal maturity, start cooling it before it even leaves the field and then store it at the farm at 33 degrees F.”
The Seversons sell certified organic, fresh sweet corn to wholesalers in season, offering refrigerated delivery to buyers in the Chicago area during July and early August. They also have organic frozen corn on the cob processed on the farm in their state-inspected facility.
The family has looked to Extension for marketing assistance. University of Illinois Extension specialists created MarketMaker in 2004 to connect farmers with buyers. Now a national partnership of land-grant universities and state departments of agriculture, sellers connect with customers through the program website (www.foodmarketmaker.com), e-blasts and various conferences. MarketMaker recently was licensed by Riverside Research and is now a public-private partnership.
“My role as an Extension educator was always hands-on with farmers. When farmers were concerned about commodity prices in the 1990s, we started looking at value-added markets,” says Darlene Knipe, cofounder of MarketMaker, who retired from Extension and now works with Riverside Research on the program.
“MarketMaker fills the gap between big and small growers and buyers,” Knipe adds. “It allows farmers to find ways to distinguish their business in a commodity market and highlights what Extension has done well for the last 100 years.”
MarketMaker has generated customers for Severson during the last five years. He has been able to trace wholesale transactions back to the website. “We are amazed at how much demand there is out there,” he says. “We plan to expand our volume through the program.”
LSU AgCenter’s Gould says Cooperative Extension has excelled at its core mission of bringing research-based knowledge from land-grant universities to farmers, even as the industry has changed. A century ago, more than 50% of the U.S. population lived in rural areas, and 30% of the workforce was farming. Today, USDA reports only 17% of Americans live in rural areas, and fewer than 2% of Americans farm for a living.
“Extension’s worked hard to expose farmers to new technologies and techniques through on-farm demonstrations, field trips and home visits to show practical applications,” Gould says.
“One hundred years is a long time, and the changes we have seen are huge,” adds Jimmy Henning, associate dean, University of Kentucky Extension. “But our system has always been based on building relationships. That is still sound. Our product mix may change as we continue to make our case for a return on public investment, but we are still relevant.”
One of the dramatic shifts Sonny Ramaswamy notes is the increase in independent certified crop advisers (CCAs) during the last 30 years, as public investments in Extension have diminished.
“CCAs were being mentored by Extension agents, and private companies started hiring their own agronomy experts in the 1980s and 1990s. People also began using the Internet to search for information,” says Ramaswamy, National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) director, based in Washington, D.C. NIFA, which was created in 2009 as a result of the 2008 farm bill, oversees federal Extension programming and funding.
In addition to agriculture, Extension currently works in five other areas: 4-H youth development, leadership development, natural resources, family and consumer sciences, and community and economic development. Extension also supports the eXtension initiative (www.extension.org).
“Our contemporary challenge is addressing needs of a larger number of part-time farmers and still full-time farmers,” Ramaswamy explains.
“That may mean fewer face-to-face meetings between 8 and 5. But with technology, we can reach thousands in seconds to educate and analyze,” he adds. “We must quickly and efficiently connect farmers with experts as trusted sources.”
Henning anticipates more local, farm-to-plate programs in the future, too. “We can help farmers see what is coming, help them be responsible with resources and know that our recommendations are sound,” he says. “We still have the farmer’s best interests at heart.”
SMALLER AND LEANER
While the Extension philosophy has not changed, its structure has. The number of local Extension offices has declined in the past decade, and some state county offices have been consolidated into regional centers. Federal budget cuts that began in the 1980s were exacerbated between 2001 and 2010.
“We lost about 30% of our nation’s Extension footprint, which is primarily agents,” Ramaswamy says. “About 2,900 Extension offices exist nationwide.
“Some states suffered a 50% cut,” he adds. “We are reorganizing and districting now, with multiple counties being serviced by one agent in some states. Area specialists visit several counties instead of just one county.”
Ramaswamy says with the changes in Extension’s structure, it is hard to pinpoint exactly how much funding has changed. In current dollars, the federal Extension appropriation has grown, while total federal Extension funding (in inflation-adjusted dollars) and real formula funding have declined since 1980. State Extension funding has risen since 1936, when the share was 41%. Overall state funding today is about 80% of the total Extension budget.
Total dollars allocated to 1862 land-grant universities was $1.182 billion in 2007 compared to $1.188 billion in 2012. That includes state-matching dollars, and county and private funding. During the same time, 1890’s land-grant funding was $62 million compared with $78 million in 2012. Funding authorizations for land grants come from two separate laws, so the budgets are separate.
“Funding has become more private and fee driven, and commodity checkoff groups are making huge investments,” Ramaswamy says. “We have always been told to think globally and act locally. Now, we need to think locally and act globally. Extension has always had the ability to take complex ideas and turn them into something understandable, and it always will.”
A Look Back
1862 — The Morrill Act creates land-grant universities.
1887 — The Hatch Act expands agricultural research programs throughout the country.
1914 — The Smith-Lever Act creates Extension and expands vocational, agricultural and home demonstration programs in rural America via land-grant universities.
1924 — National 4-H clubs are formed.
1929 — The Capper-Ketchum Act provides annual funding to states to increase the number of county and home demonstration agents.
1950s — Extension creates training programs for farmers to be more efficient with equipment.
1966 — Extension receives funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the first large-scale funding from an outside agency and the start of the Sea Grant colleges.
1971 — USDA amends the funding formula and gives $12.6 million directly to 1890 land-grant universities for research and Extension.
1994 — The Department of Agriculture Reorganization Act creates Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service (CSREES) by combining the former cooperative state research service and the Extension service into a single agency.
2007 — The eXtension Internet platform is launched.
2009 — CSREES is reorganized into the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA).