Celebrating the 100th Anniversary of Extension: Rooted in Service

Imagine farm life in Washington State a century ago: Smoky kerosene lamps lighting up the night reveal no smartphones, laptops, or TVs. Food is cooked on wood or coal stoves. Clothes are washed with homemade soap by hand in a tub. Horses provide transportation as well as draft power.

Farm families faced a multitude of challenges with few places to turn for help. Hungry for knowledge, they flocked by the thousands to farmers’ institutes and demonstration trains set up by the Washington Experiment Station to share the results from research at the state’s new land-grant college in Pullman.

In 1862, Congress created a university system to make higher education available to working-class America. WSU and fellow land-grant colleges were the result. Congress envisioned a curriculum designed to provide a liberal but practical education focused on agricultural and industrial sciences, as well as arts and humanities. Twenty-five years later in 1887, Congress passed the Hatch Act authorizing land grants to create experimental research stations for specialized studies at regional levels.

A crowd in front of a train.
In 1912, this demonstration train toured eastern Washington to
“encourage diversified farming and to illustrate various means of improving farm life”
(The Pow Wow, Nov. 1913, p. 16).

This year, WSU and other land-grant universities celebrate the centenary of the Smith-Lever Act, which established the Cooperative Extension Service in 1914 as an engine to disseminate the knowledge derived from the campuses and research stations. Today, for many people, WSU Extension is still the point of first contact with a research university, whether it be through 4-H activities, Master Gardener workshops, or food nutrition programs. The goal of WSU Extension remains thoroughly egalitarian when it comes to “extending” research-based knowledge through a county-by-county network of Extension educators. The outcome has been improved lives throughout the state.

Though issues and policy priorities have changed over four generations, the WSU land-grant mission has not. Accordingly, the services offered by CAHNRS’ four Research and Extension Centers and 15 academic units continue to meet new realities. This includes working collaboratively with a wide array of public and private partners to generate more knowledge about childhood obesity as well as develop agricultural practices and technologies with increased efficiency and reduced environmental impact.

CSANR Green From The Ground Up Video
In this 2010 video, researchers at the WSU Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources explain how they are helping farmers and ranchers cultivate sustainable practices.

It follows that success stories abound. Just a few are Washington’s status as one of the top wine-producing regions in the world, reduced stormwater pollution from urban streets, and strengthened markets for artisan bread and craft beer made with western Washington grains.

Who knows what the next big discovery will be, or how WSU Extension will evolve over the next 100 years? The only thing we know for sure is that we can count on WSU Extension to explore the issues, lead the research, and extend the information that will help address whatever challenges lie ahead in every county of our great state.

Adapted by Ann Goos from Russell M. Turner, The First 45 Years: A History of Cooperative Extension in Washington State (1961); and Felix Entenmann, The Next 25 years: An Update of the History of Cooperative Extension (1989).