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Origins of the Cooperative Extension System and Purdue Extension

Recently, I’ve been discussing Purdue Extension and land-grant institutions. This week we conclude this mini-history lesson by delving into the formation of USDA’s Cooperative Extension System, and how that relates to Purdue Extension.

You may recall from last week that the Morrill Act was passed in 1862, which provided the means to establish a land-grant college in each state, and Purdue University was established in 1869 as Indiana’s land-grant university.

The Hatch Act of 1887 strengthened the capacity of land-grant universities to research agricultural problems faced by rural citizens by creating experiment stations at land-grant schools.

Shortly after the passage of the Morrill Act, “Farmers' Institutes” gained momentum. In 1863 the first recorded Farmers Institute was held in Springfield, Massachusetts, under the sponsorship of the Massachusetts State Board of Agriculture. In 1882 two Farmers' Institutes were held in Indiana under the auspices of the Indiana State Board of Agriculture. The Farmers Institute spread rapidly with the passage of the Farmers Institute Act of 1889, which appropriated $5,000 and placed the administration of the Farmers Institute in the hands of the Purdue School of Agriculture. They reached their zenith in 1916-17 when 516 institutes were held statewide. 

Purdue Professor William Carroll Latta was the first superintendent of the Farmer’s Institutes. Although focused on agriculture, Farmers’ Institutes also laid the foundation for future Extension programs, including 4-H, home economics, and community leadership and development. Latta was also instrumental in encouraging farm young people to attend Purdue’s Winter Short Course to study the science and practice of farming.

In 1914, the Smith-Lever Extension Act was passed by Congress. This Act established the Cooperative Extension System within USDA and began a Federal-State system of adult and youth education that has been a world model. A Cooperative Extension Service was associated with each land-grant institution, enabling the dissemination of research from each Experiment Station to local residents.

Some Extension work pre-dated the act that formalized the Cooperative Extension System. It is believed that the first agricultural agent employed in a county began his work in Smith County, Texas in 1906. The movement spread rapidly, with Indiana establishing its first county agricultural agent in LaPorte County in 1912. Likewise, the first Indiana Home Demonstration Agent was appointed in Vanderburgh County in 1917. Assistant County Agents were an innovation in Indiana in 1928, several being employed that year with the assistance of federal funds to serve local youth.

In Whitley County, B.L. Hummel was hired as the first County Agent in 1917. R.V. Klepinger was hired as the first Assistant County Agent in 1935. And, Margaret Rosentrader was hired as the first Home Demonstration Agent in 1956.

Although the 4-H program serves school-age youth, older youth groups were organized in Blackford, Parke, and Tipton Counties in 1934. In 1935 the Extension Service offered statewide assistance to out-of-school youth (18 to 28 years of age) by organizing clubs of "older rural youth." State Rural Youth meetings were held at Purdue University starting in 1937. At one time or another, every Indiana county has had a Rural Youth club.

To better reflect the change which had occurred in the constituency of Extension, in 1963 the name was changed from Agricultural Extension Service to Cooperative Extension Service. In July 1993, the County Extension Agent designation was changed to County Extension Educator.

Program area titles have undergone several changes from the early days when they were known as agriculture, home economics, and 4-H. These areas of responsibility are now known as agriculture and natural resources (ANR), health and human sciences (HHS), and 4-H youth development. Additionally, Purdue Extension has a program area of community development.

Federally, the Cooperative Extension System is currently within USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA). NIFA explained on its website, “NIFA uses an integrated approach to ensure scientific discoveries reach the people who can put them to use. Through partnerships with the Land-Grant University System and government, private, and non-profit organizations, our research, education, and extension programs are able to provide solutions to those who need them.”

In Indiana, the Purdue University Cooperative Extension Service (Purdue Extension, for short) serves local residents through its county offices and Extension Educators.

Purdue Extension’s Mission Statement: “We deliver practical, research-based information that enhances lives and livelihoods.”

Purdue Extension’s Vision Statement: “We will be a leader in providing relevant, high-impact educational programs that transform the lives and livelihoods of individuals and communities in Indiana and the world.”

For further information, consider purchasing books authored by Dr. Frederick Whitford and others, available at: Some of the information in today’s article was sourced from the book, The Grand Old Man of Purdue University and Indiana Agriculture, A Biography of William Carroll Latta, by Whitford and Andrew G. Martin (image below and banner image).

Book image - Biography of William Carroll Latta


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