Overview of Extension and Its Involvement in Urban Agriculture

A series of legislative acts between 1862 and 1914 established American Land-Grant Universities and created their tripartite system of teaching, research, and extension (Buttel 2005; National Research Council 1995). First, the Morrill Act of 1862 granted federal lands to each state to fund the establishment of a college that would teach practical subjects, including agriculture, and expand access to higher education (Hayden-Smith and Surls 2014).[1] In many southern states, African Americans were not able to attend land-grant universities until the passage of the second Morrill Act of 1890, which conditioned federal funding for land-grant universities on states either prohibiting racial discrimination in admissions or establishing a separate land-grant institution for Black students (Lee Jr. and Keys 2013; National Research Council 1995). With the passage of the Hatch Act of 1887, the federal government subsequently expanded the research function of LGUs by providing funding for agricultural experiment stations that emphasized locally adapted, applied agricultural research (Buttel 2005). The final addition to this three- part system. Cooperative Extension was envisioned as a cooperative funding effort by county, state, and federal government and was intended to extend land-grant universities’ reach beyond their campuses and research stations, bringing education and applied research into rural communities and homes. President Woodrow Wilson, who signed the Smith-Lever Act of 1914 into law, called it “one of the most significant and far-reaching measures for the education of adults ever adopted by government” (Wilson quoted in Hayden-Smith and Surls 2014).

As the statewide arm of LGUs, Extension functions as a bridge between the university and the community, creating “a unique space that connects academic knowledge with practical purposes” (Collins 2015, 48). Extension does this work by engaging communities in learning and research activities, creating access to existing research-based information, developing local leadership, and facilitating collaborative applied research and the application of research (Henning et al. 2014: Smith 1949/2013). All of these activities are intended to help community members conduct their own analyses of their situations, solve local problems and to share knowledge so that people can improve their work, homes, lives, and communities (Collins 2015; Peters 2014). Extension employs a variety of formal and informal educational approaches to inspire learning and create access for a broad audience (Henning et al. 2014). For instance, as an early form of extension education, the Tuskegee Institute Moveable School brought an agricultural agent, a home demonstration agent, and a registered nurse to people throughout Alabama to conduct on-site demonstrations in partnership with farm families (Mayberry 1989; Zabawa 2008). Other early examples include locally-led reading circles for farm women and men, correspondence courses, farm and home institutes, short courses and conferences, agricultural fairs, nature study programs, and youth clubs (Smith 1949/2013). Although constantly evolving, many of these educational approaches continue into the present. As part of its model for adapting programs to local needs and building community relationships, Extension has staff located in nearly all of America’s roughly 3000 counties (Clark et al. 2016).

Each state administers its own Extension system, so the terminology used to describe Extension personnel varies from state to state (e.g., specialist, faculty, professor, agent, advisor, educator). Despite differences in terminology, positions within Extension are structured similarly across states: the largest two groups of employees are Extension specialists with a statewide appointment and Extension agents or educators with a county or multi-county appointment. Extension specialists typically have disciplinary expertise and doctoral degrees and are located on university campuses or at research stations. At the county or regional level. Extension professionals work directly with communities and key stakeholder groups, where they address locally identified issues through research and education. Some county-level positions are responsible for conducting research and education, while others focus primarily on implementing educational programs. County level assignments may include 4-H youth-focused organizations for youth development, agriculture, family and consumer sciences, health and nutrition, community development, water and natural resources, forestry, and gardening (ECOP 2019). As of 2010. roughly 30% of Extension positions were specialists and 60% were county extension agents (Wang 2014). By working together, county- and campus-based Extension personnel strive to integrate research and academic expertise with community expertise and priorities.

While Extension’s mission has remained more or less the same over the institution’s first 100 years, the context in which it operates has changed profoundly. For instance, the agricultural knowledge landscape has shifted. Contemporary farmers and food system stakeholders have access to many sources of information and Extension is just one node in agricultural knowledge networks (Lubell et al. 2014; National Research Council 1995). The country has also experienced a large demographic transition. In the early twentieth century when the Extension system was established, about half of the US population lived in rural areas and about 30% of the workforce was involved in farming (NIFA n.d.). One hundred years later, about 85% of the population is urban and less than 2% of workers are engaged in farming (NIFA n.d.). To stay relevant to the American public. Extension must engage with socioeconomically and racially diverse rural, urban and suburban audiences, while navigating a crowded field of other service providers. Some recent studies suggest that supporting efforts to develop healthy, just, and sustainable community-based food and farming systems could offer a strong foundation upon which to build more inclusive and relevant urban Extension programming (Henning et al. 2014: Oberholtzer et al. 2014; Reynolds 2011: Smith et al. 2019; Surls et al. 2015; Ventura and Bailkey 2017).

Over time, urban agriculture in American cities has ebbed and flowed, often emerging in response to periods of social or economic crisis (Basset 1981). Examples include Detroit Mayor’s Hazen S. Pingree’s potato patches in the 1890s and the contemporaneous Vacant Lots Cultivation Program in Philadelphia (Smithsonian Gardens 2020), Liberty Gardens during World War I. and World War II’s Victory Gardens. Seen as an important way to cultivate a scientific spirit and a sympathy with nature among urban and rural grade school students, school gardens were a focus of Extension work in the early 1900s (Smith 1949/2013). At that time, school gardens and schoolyard education programs in cities and in the country were supported by Extension as an important way of teaching observational skills and engaging the public with nature (Smith 1949/2013). From the early days of Extension, improving food production and preservation methods were considered critical to improving home life (Mayberry 1989; Smith 1949/2013). In the 1970s, the number of community garden programs expanded rapidly, driven by growing environmental awareness and by an economic downturn (Bassett 1981). It was during this time that Extension agents in Washington State created the Master Gardener program, designed specifically to offer horticultural education to urban audiences by training local volunteers. The Master Gardener program has since spread throughout the US and Canada (Gibby et al. 2008). Extension agents also participated in the USDA- funded Urban Gardening Program, teaching gardening, providing nutrition assistance, and engaging in 4-H type work for low-income families in more than 20 cities between 1976 and 1994 (Reynolds 2011).

Despite a long history of offering successful gardening and food preservation education through county-based extension offices, other forms of urban agriculture have sometimes fallen into institutional cracks within Extension systems. Due to decreases in the proportion of local, state, and federal funding available for Extension and the subsequent increasing reliance on grants and contracts (ECOP 2019; Wang 2014). many County Extension offices are no longer fully staffed with home food and nutrition experts or agricultural professionals. Work that does not fit comfortably into the scope of either the Master Gardener program, staffed primarily by volunteers, or the work of traditional agricultural educators may be difficult to sustain (Diekmann et al. 2017; Reynolds 2011). Further, some Master Gardener programs may be more focused on ornamental horticulture than on home food production, depending on the interests of local volunteers. In many regions, agricultural extension has become narrowly focused on the production of the most commercially valuable crops rather than on diversified cropping systems intended for local consumption, distribution, and marketing. A study of University of California Cooperative Extension found that Extension farm advisors did not differentiate their target clientele based on location (urban vs. nonurban sites of production), but on whether they were commercial or noncommercial operations, referring “noncommercial operators to the [Master Gardener Program] for assistance” (Reynolds 2011, 15). Yet, as mission-driven organizations, many urban agriculture operations do not fit neatly into these categories—being neither fully commercial nor purely home horticulture (Reynolds 2011). Even fully commercial urban agriculture operations may require assistance with non-traditional cropping systems, new financing and business models, and alternative marketing systems and therefore not be well suited for existing areas of Extension expertise and responsibility. A new set of Extension positions and programs specifically addressing urban agriculture are attempting to remedy this situation and respond to the needs of urban growers, urban consumers, and urban food and agriculture organizations and movements. Extension’s engagement with local, regional, and community food systems which encompasses urban agriculture—through a variety of food and agriculture-based projects appears to be a new and evolving area of Extension practice (Clark et al. 2016).

  • [1] Stein (2017) and Nash (2019) argue that it is important to place the federal land grants that lay the foundation for the LGUsystem in the broader context of Indian dispossession. They note that although the federal government did not acquireIndian lands for the purpose of creating LGUs, the Morrill Act was possible only because of Indian lands purchased ortaken by the federal government.
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