Spring 1990 // Volume 28 // Number 1 // Feature Articles // 1FEA6

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Letters to U.S. Leaders


M. F. Smith
Associate Professor
College of Agriculture and Coordinator of Program Planning and Evaluation
Cooperative Extension Service, University of Maryland-College Park

George Barbosa
Graduate Student
Department of Agricultural and Extension Education
University of Maryland-College Park

George Mayeske
Evaluation Specialist, PDEMS, Extension Service,
U.S. Department of Agriculture, Washington, D.C.

A 60% cut in Extension Service funding - that's what President Reagan's 1986 budget proposed. Many citizens in the U.S. and its territories were opposed to such a drastic cut and wrote letters to influential people to affirm those feelings. They wrote letters to the president of the United States, Office of Management and Budget (OMB), secretary of agriculture, and their congressional representatives. The letters they wrote varied almost as much as the writers themselves. Some were in Spanish, some imperfect English, some handwritten, some written by children. Some were simple generalized statements of support while others went into great detail as to the benefits their families and others had received from Cooperative Extension Service (CES) programs.

This article presents a summary content analysis of a random sample of letters written to the president, the OMB, and the secretary of agriculture.1 Nearly 3,500 letters were received by Extension Service-USDA from which eight random samples of 100 each were separately and collectively analyzed. Results from the combined sample should provide estimates about all the letters that would be accurate (+/-4%) 19 out of 20 times when performing these analyses.2


The letters were analyzed for information, themes, patterns, and subject areas that would naturally constitute, either individually or in groups, categories that would characterize the authors and reflect their perceptions of the Cooperative Extension Service and its programs. Four classes of content were recorded: (1) writer of letter: state of origin, age (+/-18), and gender; (2) position relative to proposed budget cuts; (3) specific effects attributable to CES; and (4) program area(s) mentioned, regardless of what was said about the area. Here are brief summaries of these results.3

Letter Writers

Eighty percent of the writers were from the southern region, 73% were estimated to be adults, 73% were female, and five percent came from groups rather than individuals.

Position Relative to Budget Cuts

Seventy-seven percent were against any cuts in the Extension budget; only 0.2% were "for" cuts. The others were willing to accept some cuts (17%) or else their position was unclear (6%).

Effects Attributed to Extension

Nine categories of effects attributable to CES emerged from the letters. The category receiving the most comments by the most letter writers was one labeled as "promotes positive youth development." More than 50% of the writers (433) indicated that CES provided a positive experience for youth. The second most-often-mentioned category was "home, health, and family benefits" by 43% of the writers, followed by "assistance to farmers" (20%) on down to the least-often-mentioned category (3%): "promotes wise use of natural resources."

Promotes Positive Youth Development. Fifty-four percent of all writers made comments about CES' effect on youth development. Eighteen percent of these made positive comments about CES being "helpful" to youth, but didn't state a specific effect. The other writers identified reasons they felt Extension was beneficial for youth. Provision of educational opportunities was the most-often-mentioned benefit (32% of all writers and 59% in this category), followed by development of responsible citizens (20% and 38%, respectively), opportunities to develop to potential (16% and 29%, respectively), and development of positive character (15% and 27%, respectively). Fewer than five percent identified providing opportunities for positive use of time, strengthening families, and providing opportunities for learning how to work in groups. Career awareness was identified by the fewest number of writers - two percent.

Provides Home, Health, and Family Benefits. Forty-three percent of all writers made comments about CES' effects on the family, its health, and the home. The provision of nutrition-related information (26% of all writers and 60% in this category) and programs that strengthen families (25% and 58%, respectively) were the most-often-mentioned effects, followed very closely by provision of home management information and services (18% and 43%, respectively). Fewer than 10% of all writers mentioned providing home economics programs/short courses to many different audiences, information for personal skills development, human health and safety information, and gardening and food supply related help. Clothing related help was mentioned least frequently-by three percent.

Provides Assistance to Farmers. Twenty percent of all writers identified effects of CES on farmers. Two categories emerged: providing information (14% of all and 70% this category) and providing technical help (45% and 10%, respectively).

Provides Services to Communities. Twenty percent of all writers credited CES with having a positive impact on communities. Nearly all of these mentioned some kind of community service like an educational program or clinic; two to three percent said Extension helped maintain a viable community and economy or credited CES with community programs or services that contributed to family welfare or said Extension had a positive effect on their county's business, industry, and public service environment.

Other Effects. Eleven percent of all writers mentioned an important impact of Extension as a source of reliable information; eight percent commented about CES helping people in all walks of life, regardless of personal characteristics, income level, or geographical location; six percent said Extension helped them to be more self-sufficient, more secure, and happier; four percent made specific comments about Extension being a positive contribution to the economy, that more is returned to the economy than is invested; and three percent identified programs on conservation of natural resources and environmental protection as important effects of Extension.

Program Areas Identified

Counts were made of the number of writers who mentioned a program regardless of what was said about that area:

4-H-524 (66% of all writers)
Home economics-386 (48%)
Agriculture-189 (24%)
Community resource development-27 (3%)
Natural resources-24 (3%)
Cooperative Extension Service (general)-390 (49%)

Numbers for these areas don't match exactly the figures provided for effects above, since some writers described effects without specifying program areas, some mentioned program areas without specifying effects, many writers referred to more than one program area, and effects were categorized without depending on program area.


Space doesn't allow a complete interpretation of what these findings mean nor what generalizations may be made, other than representativeness of the 3,500 letters. Nor does this research deal with the impact these letters had on political decision making. However, some observations do seem noteworthy.

The writers value the youth and home and family efforts of Extension (54% and 43%, respectively, identified effects in these areas).

If career awareness is an important thrust of the 4-H program, we may not be doing so well in that area - only two percent identified this as an effect.

The current initiatives seem to be on target in areas related to home economics in terms of increasing emphasis on nutrition and management and decreasing emphasis on clothing - mentioned by 26%, 18%, and 3%, respectively, of all writers.

If leadership is an important thrust of Extension programs, we may not be doing as well as we hoped. Not enough references were made to leadership for it to emerge as a category of its own.

Even though many people contact CES for home horticulture concerns, not many of these writers considered it important enough to mention - four percent of all writers referenced this area.

And finally: People care about the future of Cooperative Extension and they know why they care. The letters analyzed in this study are full of reasons they believe Extension has been a significant factor in the health, happiness, and security of their families and their farms and communities. A farmer in Louisiana summed up the responses well:

    This organization has helped many generations of American farmers, homemakers, and 4-H youth...receive educational information to help produce food and fiber for the nation, improve quality of family life, and develop skills in leadership and citizenship that have served this country well.


1. The work reported in this paper was made possible through a cooperative agreement between the University of Maryland and the Extension Service-USDA, Washington, D.C.

2. M. F. Smith, Sampling Considerations in Cooperative Extension, PE-1 (Gainesville, Florida: Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida, 1983).

3. S. Sudman, Applied Sampling (New York: Academic Press, 1976).