Cooperative Extension serves Arkansas through wide variety of programs

by Jan Spann

Most of us don’t know what the Smith-Lever act did 100 years ago, but its outreach since 1914 has had a broad and positive impact on our state and its residents.

When President Woodrow Wilson signed this act into law, half of the U.S. population lived in rural areas. The national agricultural extension service created by this act helped our nation through two World Wars, the great depression, floods and countless other challenges.

Although Arkansas had been assigned its first extension agent nine years earlier, Smith-Lever would lead to bigger things for Arkansas. State government became involved. The University of Arkansas joined the effort and the Cooperative Extension Service (CES) as we know it was born. 

This educational force would change agriculture forever. The idea behind extension was simple. Agents would collect the latest research on farming and household issues and teach these innovations to their neighbors.

“Having the ability to transfer research discoveries to the people who could use them was a key moment in our history,” said Tony Windham, associate vice president-extension for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture. “It provided the ability to raise the level of farm production from near subsistence to a level where it could support a nation that was growing in population, economy and technology.”

The result was a steady rise in the standard of living across the state.

In 1914, extension agents promoted the mechanization of farms, introduced pest control and fertilization techniques and encouraged crop diversification and farm cooperatives. Today, extension agents and specialists promote resource conservation, precision agricultural techniques and development of phone- and tablet-based tools for farming.

Extension work in rural America helped make possible the American agricultural revolution, which dramatically increased farm productivity:

In 1945, it took up to 14 labor-hours to produce 100 bushels of corn on two acres of land.

By 1987, it took just under three labor-hours to produce that same 100 bushels of corn on just over one acre.

In 2002, that same 100 bushels of corn were produced on less than one acre, and this increase in productivity has allowed fewer farmers to produce more food.

Arkansas agriculture is a $20 billion business, making up nearly 25 percent of the gross state product and creating one in every six jobs in Arkansas, from farms to processing plants to value-added industries and local food markets.

Arkansas’ first extension agent started work in 1905, and three years later White County organized the first corn club. Pig and corn clubs for boys and canning clubs for girls were the forerunner of modern day 4-H. Today, traditional activities such as livestock and cooking are still part of 4-H, but so are robotics and geospatial technologies, computer science, nutrition, health, citizenship and leadership.

In the early days, farm women across the state learned techniques for safe food preservation, mattress-making and clothing construction. Their expertise would serve them well later when their skills were needed to support the two World War efforts. Today, CES Family and Consumer Science faculty teach healthy lifestyles with relationship and parenting skills training, money management techniques, advice for our aging population and child-care provider training.

When crop prices dropped in the 1920s, CES agents and university faculty members worked with farmers to organize marketing cooperatives, pooling resources to sell crop harvests at better prices. As the ‘20s roared out, the Depression made a bad situation worse. In the South, prices for crops, particularly cotton, had been low for a decade. Many people went hungry when their surplus crops couldn’t be sold for a profit. During the summer of 1930, a severe drought turned once-productive topsoil into dust that was carried away by strong winds and piled up in drifts against houses and barns. It was the beginning of the “Dust Bowl” era, which would last into the mid-1930s.

In the 1930s, agents worked with the Rural Electrification Administration to bring electric power to rural Arkansas. By this time, many counties had agents who worked frequently with their constituents and were viewed as trusted advisors. Even today, CES faculty plays a public policy role by encouraging entrepreneurship and helping voters make the best possible decisions about their futures.

The Cooperative Extension Service was one of the few constants during a time of chaos and uncertainty. While the Depression took its toll on the Extension Service, both financially and personnel-wise, rural Arkansans relied more on the advice of county agriculture and home demonstration agents during these bad times. With so much to do and only so many hours in the day, county agents began to rely on leading farm men and women to help plan and carry out Extension programs.

This development of rural leaders is perhaps the most far-reaching accomplishment of Extension’s first 25 years. In 1939, 28,905 men, women and older 4-H club members, including 4,641 black farm people, served their communities as members of CES agricultural committees and as volunteer leaders for Home Demonstration and 4-H clubs.

In 1914, only 24 counties had county agents, but those few agents introduced CES programs to an estimated 20,000 farm families. By its 25th anniversary in 1939, each county had at least one agent. They reached 199,864 farm families, including 20,778 black families. Negro agents, 11 men and 13 women, were assigned to the 16 counties with the largest black populations. A movable school truck reached another 23 counties with smaller black populations.

Fewer than 2 percent of Americans farm for a living today, and only 17 percent of Americans now live in rural areas. Yet, the Extension Service serves more Arkansans on a daily basis than any other institution of higher learning. That outreach includes 4-H, Home Demonstration clubs and the Master Gardeners program.

Over the decades, CES agents have helped introduce mechanization, aided in making statewide ch
ildhood immunizations a reality and back in the 1930s, even helped persuade their neighbors that electricity was a good thing. 4-H, the only youth program affiliated with the University of Arkansas, grew out of Extension’s mission to pass on innovations to farm families by teaching youth new ways of growing.

Last year, the 1,400 CES employees served more than half a million youth and children, provided SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) education to 267,000 Arkansans, engaged 144,000 youth in 4-H programs and provided continuing education credits for 21,624 child care providers. Much of this work is supported by a cast of volunteers: parents, grandparents, gardeners, farmers, homemakers and community leaders who gave 2.86 million hours of their time in 2013, making Extension Service the No. 1 volunteer agency in Arkansas.

Today, with offices in all 75 counties, the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service works to improve the quality of life for all Arkansans. To learn more, visit or contact your county extension office.


A Conway resident, Jan Spann has been gardening for 20-plus years and has been involved with the Faulkner County Master Gardeners for 11 years. She and her husband, Randy, have five children and eight grandchildren.