Winter 1986 // Volume 24 // Number 4 // Forum // 4FRM1

Previous Article Issue Contents Previous Article

Should Business Be the "Business" of Extension


Thomas A. Henderson
Program Director,
Economic Development/Continuing Education
University of Missouri-Columbia

Whether from reading "Extension in the 80's," attending national or regional Extension conferences on small or home-based business, or hearing the clarion call for the revitalization of rural America, many Extension practitioners have realized that business as a discipline and as a clientele has been rapidly becoming the "business" of Extension.

This new interest can be traced to a more complete understanding of the economic complexity of our rural communities. For many years, communities were systematically identified as manufacturing, tourism, or farm-based economies, but it's increasingly recognized that a community's economic health rests on the balance and integration of many varied components. With that new emerging level of understanding came a desire by some Extension professionals to meet the broader needs of rural economic development.

To an increasing number of Extension personnel, the need for working with manufacturers, wholesalers, retail operators, and would-be entrepreneurs has gained momentum recently. However, various methodologies and resources targeted for this effort represent a diverse and sometimes curious representation of Extension expertise.

To effect an outreach, Extension Services in a few states such as Wisconsin and Vermont established Small Business Development Centers through contractual arrangements with the U.S. Small Business Administration. Many other states have taken existing resources configured in traditionally staffed Extension categories and redirected efforts to business development.

Missouri Cooperative Extension, with a dedicated mission to working with private sector employers through its Business and Industry Extension Program, approaches the completion of its first two decades of educational effort. With a network of off-campus Extension specialists and faculty resources available through its Small Business Development Centers and Economic Development Administration's University Center Program, the educational needs of the state's businesses have been addressed.

With the real and threatened effects of budgetary limitations and cutbacks, Extension's commitment to economic development through this still largely nontraditional clientele comes into question. As Extension Services are challenged to review and prioritize their educational efforts and audiences, one emerging perspective centers on narrowing the focus of Extension work to problems associated with production agriculture. That stance presumes the economic and social problems of agriculture and rural America can only be met through educational efforts directed at agricultural producers.

As Extension professionals, we should take exception to this myopic approach to a complex set of economic and social circumstances confronting rural America. Each of us might be well-served to refocus our attentions on the real nature of Extension education. The classic example of marketing myopia relates to the railroads viewing themselves during their golden years as being in the rail hauling business rather than the transportation business. That shortsighted and narrowly prescribed selfimage resulted in the rail industry's decline as the preeminent mover of passengers and goods in America.

As pressures grow to redescribe the mission of Cooperative Extension in America, certain individuals will continue to espouse the notion that efforts should be focused on audiences that have been historically well served by our efforts.

In a very personal way, I believe our relevance for the future lies not in the identification of what we've been or who we've served, as the rail industry did, but in the fact that Cooperative Extension represents the most successful system of lifelong learning developed anywhere to date.

If those of us in Extension education can identify with the larger context of our reason for existence, it's possible that the future and continuing business of Extension will include "business."