Spring 1991 // Volume 29 // Number 1 // To The Point // 1TP1

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Rural Development and Extension

The Extension System isn't the only outreach activity in the university with relevance for rural development. As Extension leaders take on a broader coordination role, they should uphold the integrity of Extension as an honest broker and source of education and information.

Wayne A. Schutjer
Associate Dean
Associate Director
Cooperative Extension
Penn State-University Park

The Experiment Station Committee on Organization and Policy (ESCOP) report Agriculture and Rural Viability proposes significant increases in funding for both research and Extension in rural development. This funding clearly is needed. Those with responsibility for designing and implementing Extension education programs on rural development issues, however, face important questions that go beyond funding. How these questions are answered will influence the effective use of additional rural development funding. The questions relate to three types of issues: conceptual, institutional, and the comparative advantage of Extension in rural development activities.

Conceptual Issues

  1. Rural development is more than agricultural development. A continuing problem in designing rural development programs is the persistent notion that the best rural development strategy is a healthy production agricultural sector. As Knutson and Fisher note in their recent Choices article, no evidence supports this notion.2 In my own state of Pennsylvania, the evidence doesn't support a strong causal relationship between agricultural production increases and increases in rural income. To the contrary, in 1988, 64 cents of every dollar of farm family income in Pennsylvania was generated from nonfarm sources.3

  2. Rural development activities are directed at multiple objectives. Often these various objectives aren't recognized and are competing. This complicates the development of consistent research-based, educational programs. The three major economic objectives guiding rural development are: (1) growth in local domestic output-income generation, (2) employment creation, and (3) improvement in income distribution within a limited geographical region. In addition, some rural development proponents suggest that the major objectives of rural development should be noneconomic goals, such as "quality of life," which give primacy to environmental quality. Other proponents suggest that the "empowerment" of local citizens is the most appropriate goal for rural development activities that require that local people and institutions develop the capacity to manage rural development.4 Faculty and staff in our Colleges of Agriculture are only beginning to become effective in developing educational programs that deal with multiple objectives in the commercial agricultural sector, such as profitability and environment. There's no reason to believe that dealing with multiple objectives will prove any less difficult in our rural development activities.

  3. We currently lack a comprehensive theory of rural development. It's difficult to develop educational programs in support of rural development in the absence of a conceptual basis to guide and prioritize activities. We currently don't have such a framework. Economic-base theory that relates income growth in a given geographical area to the difference between area exports and imports has traditionally been used in aggregate economic models of rural development. Beyond that framework, rural development economists and policy makers have tended to look for guidance to the literature of economic development in Third World nations. But Third World experiences and national development models are seldom really applicable or relevant.5

Perhaps the most widely adapted and applicable policy concept growing out of the general economic literature is the low-wage industrialization strategy of rural development. In this model, industrial jobs, secondary employment, and income effects are generated through policies designed to maintain low labor costs. This policy has been effective in much of Asia and has been adopted in some southern states. The impact of the strategy on employment can't be questioned. But, as many Asian nations have discovered, a system that maintains employment by maintaining low labor productivity and wages can have significant social costs. The critical contribution of education to increasing labor productivity and worker income has, however, been recognized; and human capital has become a focus for domestic development policy, both in Asian nations and in parts of the U.S.

The absence of a general theory of rural development doesn't mean that nothing is known. Each rural development scholar and practitioner can produce a list of characteristics of regions experiencing rural development and a related list of factors that appear to be lagging or missing. In short, we appear to be operating in an empirical world where the "Art of Rural Development" prevails rather than in a theoretical world where priorities and strategies are conceptually based.

Institutional Issues

  1. The research base for rural development is widely dispersed within our individual universities. The basic assumption of the traditional land-grant model was that the Extension System can readily gain access to the analytical base required by clientele. This assumption began to lose credibility as Extension Systems housed in Colleges of Agriculture moved toward serving a broader clientele. Thus, having Extension and the analytical base for production agriculture in the same administrative unit (College of Agriculture) was important for improving agricultural productivity. As we move toward rural development, youth development, and more work in urban areas, it's increasingly necessary to work across college lines to gain access to the needed research base. This cooperation requires a whole new set of working arrangements and institutional attitudes and commitments. For example, faculty in the College of Engineering knowledgeable about solid waste disposal and community water systems have no institutional obligation at many universities to provide research for dissemination by Extension. This must change if Extension is to address problems that cut across traditional academic disciplines and college foci.

  2. The Extension System isn't the only outreach activity in the university with relevance for rural development. Within each of our universities, numerous entities with outreach responsibility can contribute to one or more dimensions of rural development. The cooperation of other outreach mechanisms in helping to link the university research base to rural development activities is welcome-but it does require a clear definition of the role of Extension in the rural development process.

  3. The land-grant university isn't the only institution working in the area of rural development. In many states, other private and public universities offer outreach programs designed to enhance the social and economic well-being of citizens in rural areas. A number of states have established Rural Development Centers. For example, the Northeast has or will soon have eight centers. Only one of the centers is university-based. Each has a rural development research and outreach role that may be unrelated to the efforts of the land-grant university. Finally, many industries are establishing rural development outreach programs. In Pennsylvania, the Bell Telephone company has an active rural development program that only in part functions in cooperation with Penn State.6 Once again, the issue isn't one of competition between alternative sources of rural development assistance. The issue is coordination and the avoidance of duplication and of programs that may work at cross purposes. New alliances between Extension and the other providers of rural development research and outreach must be defined and made effective.

The "Extension Edge"

  1. Extension has a unique working relationship with local government officials that can serve as a strong link between land -grant university technical assistance and research and the community. It's this uniqueness that provides the basis for Extension's comparative advantage in rural development activities. In most states, Extension has a reservoir of local government-based, rural development experience. Since the rural beautification programs of the 1950s, the planning organization efforts of the 1960s, and the employment-industrial park strategies of the 1970s, Extension, with offices in each county, has had a tradition of working in close collaboration with local government officials to solve community problems and to develop and conduct educational programs to meet local needs. The comparative advantage of Extension in the milieu of rural development agencies and actors grows out of this history and experience. In short, rural development requires active involvement and action by local government institutions, be they rural township supervisors or neighborhood community action groups in urban centers. Extension as an institution is known and respected among traditional local government groups and has the experience to develop a close collaborative relationship with other local government entities that haven't traditionally had a working relationship with land-grant universities.

  2. Extension must maintain its current role of transferring current research on industrial technology and local government available within most Colleges of Agriculture to local rural development groups. Although much of the technology required by industry in rural areas won't be found in Colleges of Agriculture, these colleges do have technological expertise that's relevant-particularly to the food sector. In addition, departments of rural social sciences have information and educational materials needed by township supervisors, county commissioners, and local development agencies. As Extension seeks to help other rural development groups gain local information and access, it must not neglect its traditional rural development roles.

  3. As Extension leaders take on a broader coordination role, they should uphold the integrity of Extension as an honest broker and source of education and information. This role must not be sacrificed for what might appear to be short-term gains. Extension shouldn't use its position as an early player in rural development to become a "gatekeeper." Similarly, state and federal agencies occasionally will exert pressures on the land- grant universities to promote specific policies-be they changes in tax policy or rules relating to land use. These policies will be viewed as a panacea for rural development by the promoting agency. Extension must continue to provide research-based, educational programs about such proposed policy changes, but must avoid an advocacy position.

In summary, the future of Extension in the area of rural development is promising. The increased attention rural problems are receiving and the emergence of additional "players" provide great promise for rural development and significant opportunities for Extension to continue as a major force in the development of rural America.


1. ESCOP, Agriculture and Rural Viability (Raleigh: North Carolina State University, North Carolina Agricultural Research Service, 1988). Policy: Fragmentation, Moving Toward Consensus," Choices, IV (No. 2, 1989), 8-11.

3. USDA, Economic Indicators of the Farm Sector: State Financial Summary, 1988 (Washington, D.C.: Economic Research Service, 1989).

4. David L. Brown and others, eds., Rural Economic Development in the 1980's: Prospectus for the Future, Rural Development Report No. 69 (Washington, D.C.: USDA, Economic Research Service,1988.

5. OECD, New Trends in Rural Policy Making (Paris, France: Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, 1988).

6. Theodore E. Fuller and William R. Gillis, Road to Renaissance IV (Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, 1989).