As a very new county agent in a rural county in Arkansas, I had occasion to meet a lady—an Extension volunteer no less—of the opinion that the Cooperative Extension Service was an outdated concept and had outlived its usefulness.
Ms. Marguerite was of the generation that benefited from the early work of the Extension service, with involvement as a child in canning clubs (a predecessor of 4-H as we know it today) and later as a member of Extension Homemaker clubs. She had accompanied her mother and grandmother to “home extension” meetings where they canned tomatoes and made mattresses. And I assume that much of her thoughts on the usefulness of Extension in current times were based on those past experiences.
I was fresh out of college, only having worked about six months, upon hearing these remarks. I recall being offended at her comments and making a feeble attempt to justify our existence and relevance. My defense did little to change her opinion. I heard her air the same thoughts just a few weeks later.
That was ten years ago.
That early encounter was a bit fortuitous for me. Even as a new professional I saw a great deal of value in my work and in the work of Extension. It had never occurred to me that others might feel differently. I certainly was not ready with a strong and logical answer to such opposition. And I was so new to the job that I was unaware of the canning clubs and mattress making that was part of Extension work decades back.
Since those early days I have heard folks say that the Cooperative Extension Service is the “best kept secret” in Arkansas. That is unfortunate. Extension is a part of the University of Arkansas, with offices in every county. Extension is funded by a mix of federal, state, and county funds—your tax dollars at work.
Established by the Smith-Lever Act, the Cooperative Extension Service has been around since 1914. Many associate Extension with farming, and we are indeed deeply connected to agriculture. But today’s Extension is very different from that of decades past.
Modern-day Extension can help you revamp your diet, learn to handle your finances and manage your food dollar. And if you want to help your family be healthier by cooking meals at home but don’t know how, Extension can help with that, too. Extension offers food safety training to restaurant workers, and has a fitness class called Strong Women that will help you build muscle and bone density.
Extension’s mission is to improve quality of life and economic well-being for Arkansans. That is as relevant today as it has ever been.
The thousands of volunteers that Extension coordinates across the state through organizations such as Master Gardeners and the Extension Homemakers Council support numerous Extension projects. The value of their time contribution exceeds $30 million annually. And Extension’s youth development program, 4-H, has helped hundreds of thousands of Arkansas youth grow into healthy, productive citizens. Results of a recently released longitudinal study conducted by Tufts University showed 4-H members to be healthier than their peers; they are less likely to be sedentary, and are two times less likely to smoke and use alcohol or drugs.
If I were to see Ms. Marguerite today, I would be equipped to make a much better case for why Extension work is just as relevant today as it was in 1914, if not more. Extension offers the unbiased, evidence-based information that people need to raise families, manage finances, and stay fit and healthy.
Much has changed since 1914—Extension’s focus has evolved to meet the needs of local communities—but the organization remains committed to Arkansas residents, whether the needs are family and consumer sciences, agriculture, or 4-H-related.