Well, you’ve heard of 4-H clubs, most likely. But did you know that 4-H is implemented by 106 Cooperative Extensions across the country? And did you know that Cooperative Extensions are the outreach component of land-grant universities and offer a range of inexpensive or free educational services?

What Is Cooperative Extension?

Cooperative Extension might well be the best-kept secret around. Who knew that a lawn and garden expert from your local Extension office could come out to look at that disturbing brown patch spreading across your grass? And who knew you could call and talk to an Extension nutritionist about your kid’s eating habits?

Since its beginnings, Cooperative Extension has been considered a trusted source for educational programming and answers to questions. Cooperative Extension is the result of three important pieces of federal legislation. The 1862 Morrill Act said that at least one college in each state had to be established to teach courses in agriculture and home economics—the establishment of land-grant universities. The 1887 Hatch Act launched the connection between USDA and the land-grant universities, providing federal funding for “experiment stations.” The 1914 Smith-Lever Act funded the administration of agricultural extension education—an effort to increase farm productivity and improve rural life.

“The Smith-Lever Act addressed the concept of how we could provide outreach education—to take that research out to the people where they live,” says Paul Brown, Associate Director of Rural and Traditional Programming at the Alabama Cooperative Extension System (ACES). This final piece of legislation, Brown explains, reinforced the land-grant mission—“providing education to the masses and to segments of the population who can’t afford it otherwise.”

And the mission remains the same today. Here’s a look at some of the main educational programming areas through Extension:

Cooperative Extension Programming

  • Youth and teens (in-school, afterschool, and community clubs and individual classes)
  • Agriculture (farm management)
  • Horticulture (yard and garden)
  • Natural resources and environment (forestry, water, wildlife, etc.,)
  • Community and economic development (leadership, community organization)
  • Financial health (money management, debt management, estate planning)
  • Nutrition, health, and wellness (food, exercise, health care system, caregiving)

Youth and Wellness Programming

Budget cuts are forcing Extensions across the country to take a closer look at their finances. And Brown notes that ACES is responding to the significant cuts in Alabama by conducting a needs assessment to understand which programs and outreach efforts are most critical. “I see that some of the issues families are facing nationally are becoming more and more complex, but also more consistent,” Brown says.

He points to issues such as healthcare, wellness, and nutrition as overarching concerns for individuals as well as researchers and educators at Extensions. “We’re looking at wellness and lifestyle changes to help us as a society make better choices, and we’re trying to instill those choices in our youth,” he says. Programming in these areas will remain top priority for ACES, Brown says, including 4-H and youth programming to reach the younger generation.

Bob Sams, Director of Communication Services and Information Technology for Agriculture and Natural Resources at the University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE), agrees that these program areas have some of the farthest-reaching effects. For example, UCCE’s award-winning EatFit program has reached hundreds of thousands of young children across the state of California and the U.S. The program includes a curriculum for educators as well as online resources for teens and children. “It’s a very entertaining and well-designed curriculum for high school students… used as part of the food stamp nutrition education program,” he says.

Youth programming has historically been an important part of Cooperative Extension, and involvement in 4-H and other Extension youth programs continues to increase. Sams says afterschool programming in California is one of their fastest-growing segments of 4-H. UCCE’s school garden project, which is affiliated with the Center for Weight and Health at the University of California, Berkley, is another example of a highly visible and successful nutrition education program. UCCE collaborates with the Center for Weight and Health on a range of ongoing research projects, such as evaluating the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program that operates in low-income schools across the country.

Jill Martz, Director of the 4-H Center for Youth Development at Montana State University Extension, explains that 4-H programming through afterschool, in-school, community, and military clubs, is well received by parents because of the research-based nature of the curriculum.

4-H has the privilege and responsibility of bringing the latest research in youth programming and development to the programs they offer,” Martz says. “With that land-grant university connection, you have access to some great research and resources.”

Through Montana State 4-H, for example, children can get involved in horse-related programming—learning about proper handling and riding techniques—and other outdoor activities such as hiking, camping, and backpacking. 4-H programs around the country range from science-based youth projects, including projects involving water, energy, and wildlife, to social studies projects, including projects involving learning about various cultures and practices around the globe.

“Costs vary from one state to another,” Martz says. “At the state level we do not charge a fee for 4-H members, but at the county level they charge minimal fees to pay for the literature.” Martz says they have been fortunate that recent budget cuts have not dramatically affected county programming. “We’ve been really lucky, but then…we weren’t overstaffed to begin with and our state happened to be in a better financial situation than other states.”

Budget Cuts and Evolution to High-Tech Education

California is one such state that has been affected by the cuts. Sams explains that while much of their programming remains hands-on—with Extension agents and specialists working directly with California residents—he and his colleagues are adapting to what amounts to a 20 percent reduction in permanent state funding, and they are involved in a major reorganization of their program delivery. “Our approach is that we can longer afford to do business in the way that we’ve done in the past,” he says, “and we have an obligation to change our business processes. “

One way to do this is to make better use of the Web. “We’ve just really begun to see the impact of ubiquitously available information on the Internet,” he says, “and one of the things we still have to figure out how to do is to utilize that medium to deliver information that has a research and analytical base.”

ACES is also beginning to explore this shift in delivery. “At one time we were a high-touch organization,” Brown says. “The idea was that families could easily get to their county office.” Brown explains that today, however, ACES is looking to balance the high-touch approach with a high-technology delivery.

But this evolution from high touch to high tech isn’t just a result of the economy. Cooperative Extensions across the country, Brown says, are looking to provide a greater degree of accessibility by utilizing the technological tools of the day.

What does this mean for the average parent, teen, or child? Easy access to research-based information though online games, discussions, visual aids, etc.

This is not to say that there isn’t concern within Extension systems about changing the delivery model or losing the original mission of Extension and land-grant universities. Brown explains that some of the current dialogue among administrators and educators has to do with how best to preserve Extension’s mission and reach those individuals who need Extension services the most. “There’s the issue of helping low-resource audiences and providing that accessibility to them when they might not have the technological tools that are more available to those in more urban settings,” he says.

Across the spectrum of programming and educational services, it’s historically been Extension’s outreach to low-resource individuals, as well as its access to researchers and specialists, that set Extension apart as an education provider.

Now it’s just a matter of making a strong case for the value of Extension services.

The loss of the model by which we deliver community education would be tragic,” Sams says. “But I think there is still a critical need, especially in the information age, to provide authoritative and trusted sources of research-based information and educational programming.”

Search online for information about your state’s Cooperative Extension and programming in your area. Or visit eXtension to see how land-grant universities across the country are using the Internet to exchange objective, research-based knowledge to solve current challenges.