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Cooperative Extension Programs Help Strapped Rural Communities

Posted by Scott Elliott, National Institute of Food and Agriculture in Research and Science
Feb 24, 2015
A farmer in Navasota, Texas uses modern technology to navigate a harvester through his wheat sorghum crop.
A farmer in Navasota, Texas uses modern technology to navigate a harvester through his wheat sorghum crop.

This post is part of the Science Tuesday feature series on the USDA blog. Check back each week as we showcase stories and news from USDA's rich science and research profile.

Low prices for commodity crops are never good for agricultural producers. But for small farmers, many of whom already depend on off-farm income, this is not a good scenario.

Navigating this uncertain financial terrain is not for the faint of heart; fortunately, at-risk residents in rural communities have the Cooperative Extension Service (CES) on their side to provide them with the information they need.  Land-grant universities (LGU) provide research-based information through non-formal, non-credit to residents in their state.

These educational outreach programs are largely administered through county and regional extension offices, which bring land-grant expertise to the most local of levels.  Both the universities and their local Extension offices are supported by the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), the federal partner in the Cooperative Extension System.

“Knowledge is power, and many who live in rural communities get their information – their power – they need from the Cooperative Extension System,” said Brent Elrod, national program leader in NIFA’s Institute of Youth, Family, and Community.

Congress created Cooperative Extension 100 years ago with the passage of the Smith-Lever Act during a time when more than half of the population lived in rural areas.  While Extension programming has evolved to address the needs of the rising urban population, Extension agents are more active than ever in rural communities.

That wide range of programming includes teaching farmers new ways to market their crops, saving money, taking advantage of advances in agricultural technology, personal integrated health management, and community development.

Cooperative Extension supports rural communities in many ways.  For example, Florida A&M operates their “Entrepreneurship for At-Risk Youth” program, focusing on increasing interest in attending college, stimulating greater occupational aspirations, and improving testing scores.  And at the University of Wisconsin, Extension helped form the Mercer Downtown and Community Development Group build its grant-writing capacity, which led to six grants totaling $3 million. The town of Mercer is being transformed from decades of neglect into an attractive tourist destination in the heart of Wisconsin tourist country.

“You simply cannot overestimate the importance of a strong Extension program in rural areas.  The information and support that Extension provides can be the difference between a community that thrives or withers on the vine,” Elrod said.

Through federal funding and leadership for research, education, and extension programs, NIFA focuses on investing in science and solving critical issues impacting people's daily lives and the nation's future. For more information, visit

Category/Topic: Research and Science