Fall 1989 // Volume 27 // Number 3 // Feature Articles // 3FEA3

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Extension Trends and Directions


Harvey A. Meier
Vice President
Farm Credit Services
Spokane, Washington

This article outlines several trends and directions anticipated for higher education and Extension in the 1990s. These support a vision that Extension must change if it's to keep pace with current trends, achieve national prominence, and regain its pre-eminence in providing responsive educational programs of the highest quality to its publics.

Table 1 lists the trends and directions discussed in this article. Each is outlined in narrative form below.

Table 1. Trends and directions.

Historical 1990s
Melting pot Increased diversity
Educate all Prioritize clientele
Educate farmers operating moderate-sized
Educate bimodal distribution of farmers
Programs tied to agriculture Linkages beyond agriculture
Information transfer skills Discovery learning/problem
solving/thinking/application skills
Favorable political/funding environment Less understanding/lower financial
University and college independence
University and college integration
Disciplinary focus Interdisciplinary/collaborative/teamwork
Research syndrome Influencing the research agenda
County Extension structure Regional Extension structure
Doing things right Doing the right things

Historical-Melting Pot
1990s-Increased Diversity

Past values have emphasized a melting pot in America. Now there's value placed on diversity. The structure and demographics of an already diverse clientele will change even more dramatically during the 1990s. Trends suggesting this increased diversity include:

  • An increase in the concentration of the U.S. population above and below the childbearing ages of 20-45.
  • Americans are living longer.
  • The birthrate in the United States continues to decline.
  • The ethnic mix is undergoing constant change.
  • The number of women in the permanent labor force is increasing, which points to the necessity and, therefore, permanency of the dual wage earner family.

Historical-Educate All
1990s-Prioritize Clientele

In the past, Extension has focused its efforts on educating everyone primarily on agricultural topics. In the 1990s, Extension will no longer be able to afford to be all things to all people. It will be increasingly important to establish a target market approach for developing and delivering educational programs to increasingly diverse clientele groups. It will be essential to prioritize the needs of clientele groups and focus resources on meeting those needs. Used properly, the National Initiatives can help prioritize clientele needs; used improperly, they exacerbate the "all things to all people" dilemma.

Historical-Educate Farmers Operating Moderate-Sized Farms
1990s-Educate Bimodal Distribution of Farmers

The structure of agriculture is moving towards a bimodal distribution of farm sizes, experiencing increased integration by agribusiness, and undergoing increased globalization. In the past, traditional Extension programs have been well-suited to moderate-sized farms-specifically, those operated by individuals having a less-than-technical education. In the future, Extension will be challenged to serve not only the operators of small and moderate-sized farms, who constitute the majority of farm numbers, but also the sophisticated commercial farm operators who produce the majority of food and fiber in the U.S.

Historical-Programs Tied to Agriculture
1990s-Linkages Beyond Agriculture

It will become increasingly necessary for Extension to establish linkages beyond its traditional agricultural clientele base (agriculture and natural resources, 4-H, and home economics). Opportunities for extended learning programs at land-grant universities will become even more prevalent in the future. Given the ongoing changes occurring in population mix and demographics, as well as the changing structure of agriculture, Extension will be required to explore new opportunities and clientele linkages. This exploration must be coincident with supporting the basic mission of the Extension System and the land-grant university system.

Historical-Information Transfer Skills
1990s-Discovery Learning/Problem Solving/Thinking/Application Skills

Historically, Extension has focused on information transfer to its clientele groups. In the 1990s, the emphasis will be shifted to discovery learning/problem solving/thinking/application skills.

Historical-Favorable Political/Funding Environment
1990s-Less Understanding/Lower Financial Support

The traditional political environment Extension has operated in has been favorable. In the 1990s, this environment may very well involve less understanding of the contribution made by the Extension System to support a productive agricultural system in the United States. The decline in the number of those in Congress who fully understand agriculture and its complexities, plus the lack of understanding among many congressional aides relative to the agricultural sector, suggest a less than favorable political environment for agriculture in the 1990s.

Historical-University and College Independence (Separateness)
1990s-University and College Integration (Togetherness)

In the past, there has been a great deal of separation between colleges and departments in the land-grant university system. In the future, increased attention will need to be given to integrating the working relationship between teaching, research, and Extension. Interdepartmental and intercollege coordination will need to be expanded and rewarded. Extension won't be able to operate separately and distinctly from other elements and components of the university in the future. A need exists to achieve university-wide involvement in Extension's mission and activities.

Historical-Disciplinary Focus
1990s-Interdisciplinary/Collaborative/Teamwork Focus

Extension faculty must be encouraged to pursue scholarly and scientific inquiry coupled with applied problem solving, teaching, and research endeavors. Issues programming will require genuine interdisciplinary effort in an environment that fosters integrated team building and collaborative problem-solving approaches. The process of coordinating collaborative efforts must be recognized and rewarded as a valid, professional, and scholarly pursuit.

Historical-Research Syndrome
1990s-Influencing the Research Agenda

In the 1990s, it will be essential for Extension faculty to play a greater role in influencing the research agenda if they're to achieve equal status with their research colleagues. McDowell noted that the research agenda can be influenced by Extension faculty in several ways. These include: (1) defining problem areas where researchers can make clear contributions on an applied basis and encouraging them to write for trade publications, (2) self-initiating the publication of articles in both refereed and nonrefereed publications (if this is a requirement for tenure, then Extension faculty must be provided with research resources or be allowed to acquire them), and (3) becoming more tenacious in seeking to play on a level playing field with their research and teaching colleagues (Extension must be willing to "give" to the university as well as "receive").1

Historical-County Extension Structure
1990s-Regional Extension Structure

Extension programs often have been restricted by geographical boundaries. The 1990s will witness the need to focus on a more regional Extension structure and approach in the development and delivery of quality Extension education programs. Multicounty/multistate programming will be increasingly important considerations. Implementation of regional efforts will require close cooperation among neighboring state Extension programs and soliciting support for doing so from county and local funding sources.

Historical-Doing Things Right
1990s-Doing the Right Things

Finally, while Extension historically has concentrated on doing things right, the 1990s will require doing the right things right, at the right time, and in the right place. Doing the right things will enhance the image of Extension, the College of Agriculture, and the university in the eyes of clientele and the university constituency at large.


1. G. R. McDowell, "Land-Grant Colleges of Agriculture: Renegotiating or Abandoning a Social Contract," Choices (Second Quarter 1988), pp. 18-21.