The agricultural extension service in Colorado (1887–present) links individuals, organizations, and communities with research experts to address agrarian issues. These issues encompass rural problems associated with farming and ranching, as well as urban topics such as cooperative gardens and residential gardening.
In Colorado, commercial agriculture first developed on the eastern plains, and the region served as a major focus for extension work, especially during the extension service’s early years. The service also helped agriculturalists develop solutions in the Western Slope and Rocky Mountain areas, where it worked to overcome short growing seasons, uneven terrain, and limited moisture. Stock raising was emphasized in these areas, although irrigation also allows fruit orchards to thrive.
CSU Extension helps citizens identify and solve local agricultural problems by distributing the best current research and practices. Land-grant university researchers interact with local agriculturalists through extension agents, who use on-site demonstrations and publications to both gather and communicate solutions. Although CSU Extension initially emphasized crop and livestock production issues, it expanded to include a broader range of concerns, such as energy conservation, consumer education, and financial management.
Prior to the 1860s, farmers in Colorado met mining and urban food needs on their own. In 1863, leaders from the Denver area organized the first state agricultural society. Rather than educate, this group coordinated events at which farmers could market their products. The state’s first agricultural fair debuted three years later.
Access to academic expertise remained a rarity for US farmers until the Morrill Act of 1862 provided for American land-grant colleges. These institutions enabled more Americans to go to college and focused academic research on practical issues facing citizens.
Early forms of agricultural outreach began with the 1870 founding of the state’s land-grant college, Colorado Agricultural College (renamed several times, now Colorado State University [CSU]). After its opening, the college organized farmers’ institutes – scheduled instructional events for local agriculturalists directed by academics. These institutes served as forerunners to agricultural extension. After this, all community agricultural outreach was coordinated from CSU. The formal beginning of extension emerged with the Hatch Act of 1887, which reflected a national desire to apply the scientific method to agriculture. To move beyond academic knowledge, the federal act created experiment stations within states that had land-grant colleges.
However, agricultural extension remained separated across states, with no national coordination until the early twentieth century. The Smith-Lever Act of 1914 brought the federal government into partnership with states and counties, bringing additional funding and enacting the US cooperative extension system.
During the early twentieth century, the extension service emphasized soils, crops, and animals. Other aspects included home economics and children’s education. Extension agents conducted group and individual demonstrations across subjects, from planting seeds and plowing soils to animal husbandry and disease prevention. The semiarid climate of the eastern plains, the state’s main agricultural production zone, preoccupied agents. Salinity and seepage, wind-blown furrows, pests, weeds, and dust storms also confounded plains farmers, and they turned to agents for help.
Role in Crises
During World War I, CSU Extension, along with its national counterparts, worked to boost local agricultural output. The war brought more money to employ agents and scientists working toward the extension’s goals of production expansion and commodity conservation. The new philosophy and practice targeted inefficiencies and waste, resulting in dramatic increases in crop and livestock yields. To achieve these results, extension agents encouraged greater control of insect and rodent pests, as well as better nutrition through proper diet and storage of canned foods, and they coordinated with the national and local bureaucracy to market crop surpluses and farm laborers.
After World War I, the extension service served as a vital resource during agricultural downturns. The postwar influenza outbreak saw agents converting spaces into temporary soup kitchens, while during the Great Depression (1929–39) and Dust Bowl (1930s) crises, CSU Extension disseminated information about federal programs and coordinated implementation. World War II revived extension’s service as an arm of federal policy, particularly in the area of labor. During this conflict it collaborated with the federal government to determine which men should serve on farms and which on the battlefield.
The end of the twentieth century saw a tempering of the service’s bureaucratic approach, with an emphasis on intra-regional dialogue and public service. Most extension agents now work with small-acreage landowners or new farmers rather than large producers.
In recent years, CSU Extension has embraced urban agriculture, hiring its first coordinator in 2011. Urban-oriented extension emphasizes food policy and process – retail, distribution, and waste management – rather than merely production. This version of extension helps urban entrepreneurs navigate the pitfalls of turning residential backyards and vacant lots into for-profit gardens by assisting them not only with growing but also with food safety guidelines and marketing recommendations. This urban face of extension recognizes that unlike rural agriculturalists, city growers encounter unique regulatory constraints on production that include noise pollution, smells, and small-animal waste disposal.
Extension is directly administered at the county level. As an institution it is funded through participating counties, the state legislature, and the US Department of Agriculture. Most, but not all, counties participate in the agricultural extension system. Each county that participates in the extension service has at least one representative (although the agent may serve multiple counties). This agent serves as a liaison, relaying local needs to the broader institution.
Challenges – Past and Present
Prior to 1930, many farmers resisted extension work. Certain established farming communities remained skeptical of the service’s academic approach and expertise. In addition, many counties were unwilling to pay for it.
Today, CSU Extension seeks to balance both rural and urban interests and to weigh promoting expertise with listening to local needs. This reflects recent actions by a principal source of its financial support – the Colorado General Assembly – which has often remained in the hands of legislators who have little understanding of agricultural extension’s legacy in the state. During the agricultural downturn in the early 1980s, many new urban legislators from populous Denver metro areas questioned funding for extension, considering it merely a rural agency. In turn, many lawmakers from rural counties opposed new urban programs. By the end of the decade, a pruned extension service had revamped its sectional focus to address interdependence between rural and urban regions and to emphasize listening to diverse Colorado constituents.
During the course of the twentieth century, the extension service shifted from a top-down approach, with knowledge circulated by college experts, to a more collaborative model in which the service responds to local needs. It has also adapted to serve smaller agriculturalists over large producers. Agriculture extension continues today under the sponsorship of CSU, headquartered at its flagship campus in Fort Collins.