Over the past century, cooperative-extension programs have been among the best-known public services offered by land-grant universities.
But Waded Cruzado, president of Montana State University, laid out some of the challenges that extension programs face in the 21st century: Advocates for those programs will need to remind the public of extension's relevance, and extension programs themselves will have to adapt to a world that has different cultural demographics, different agricultural structures, and more ubiquitous technology, compared to when cooperative extension was founded, in 1914.
Ms. Cruzado's remarks, delivered in a speech here at the annual conference of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, addressed some of the common assertions she hears as the head of a land-grant institution. Some people believe that extension is not as important as it once was, given that the population has moved out of rural areas and into cities.
"A hundred years ago, when extension was founded, one-third of our nation's population was involved in agriculture," Ms. Cruzado said. "Today, about 1 percent of our population feeds our entire nation. This is a very important 1 percent."
Extension still has a role in supporting agriculture, even as that agriculture moves into new techniques and new landscapes. She cited extension's new role in supporting local food and urban agriculture as an example. Extension programs have also had roles in helping people navigate the energy boom in shale country, and they have offered education programs in nutrition and health among urban communities.
"The questions for our future should be less about the nature of our programs and more about the impact of our projects on the people we serve," she said. "Are our programs relevant? Do our programs make a difference?"
Ms. Cruzado also pointed to the food-safety programs that extension programs deployed in the wake of Hurricane Sandy—an example of the kind of services that extension may have to provide to meet the challenges of the future.
"We need extension today, more than ever, because our society is growing not only in size, but also in the nature and complexity of its problems," she said. "The recent and painful lessons of natural disasters, the threats of man-made catastrophes, of pandemic diseases, and the fragility of the technological systems on which our trust and welfare so blindly reside, give us reason to be concerned. … Plain and simple, we need extension and we are all called to be agents who transmit the message that a better, healthier, happier world is within our reach."