CSU Extension: Bringing the land-grant mission home

In 1914, Congress authorized land-grant universities in every state to feed research-based information to extension agents in each county. CSU Extension has been meeting the charge ever since.

The scratch of the transistor radio fills the room as a listener dials into the weekly “Green Thumb” broadcast, hosted by Extension Denver county director and agent Herb Gundell. It’s the 1950s and Gundell’s radio show, along with his television program and books on gardening in the Rocky Mountains, draws a large following throughout Colorado. As the station tunes in, Herb’s voice leaps through the air with enthusiastic advice about moving indoor plants outdoors in the spring:

“A good many home gardeners attempt to transplant azaleas outdoors in spring. This is possible but difficult because our soils are generally of alkaline reaction. If the plant is taken outside, it should remain in a pot…”

Gundell, a Colorado State University graduate, epitomizes over 100 years of passionate Extension agents and their commitment to Colorado. The population may change, the needs of the state may change, but what remains are the people, like Gundell, dedicated to providing research-based solutions to residents from the Great Plains to the Western Slope, and everywhere in between. This is the essence of CSU Extension.

Extension’s beginnings

CSU ExtensionExtension’s start can be traced as far back as the early 1800s. When President Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act of 1862, establishing the land-grant college system, the foundation of Extension was already being laid though citizen-run agricultural and home economics clubs. After Colorado Agricultural College – now CSU – was founded eight years later, the pathway for establishing a comprehensive state outreach system was beginning to clear.

Two additional acts fueled the creation of the modern extension system; the Hatch Act of 1887 and the Smith-Lever Act of 1914. The former led to the establishment of substations throughout the state to appropriately study the diverse agricultural landscapes in Colorado. Now known as Agricultural Experiment Stations, the eight field sites span the state from Arkansas Valley to Orchard Mesa and lead research on agriculture, livestock, and crops.

The Smith-Lever Act of 1914 formalized the extension system across the nation. What existed as a network of fact bulletins, experiment stations, training institutes, and home economics clubs in Colorado would now officially be known as the Extension Service. Agents were placed in nearly all of Colorado’s counties and were supported by specialists on the main campus, often professors who provided research and tools to the community-based staff. This exchange of information between campus and community was a novel innovation and became an integral piece of the land-grant system’s outreach efforts.

CSU ExtensionAgents took the outreach mission to heart and worked to improve the lives of Coloradans by disseminating research from the main campus into real-world solutions. At the time, this meant a focus on rural Colorado, where well over half of the population lived. Programming addressed home economics, agriculture, and youth development through the 4–H program, and agents partnered with local governments in responding to the needs of their communities.

When the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, agents were faced with their first big trial. The government looked to them as a primary resource for activating food production – critical to the war effort – and staff were instrumental in meeting this need. Agents hosted educational sessions to teach people how to preserve food through canning, extending the life of the harvest into the difficult winter months. “Food Will Win the War” became a rallying cry that carried the war efforts into the homes of Coloradans and agents were there to help them answer.

Agents continued to meet the needs of the state through countless challenges that followed, including the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, and World War II. Whether it was teaching homemakers how to bake without sugar or engaging 4–H members to work farm lands in the absence of drafted workers, agents adapted to the needs of the communities and the nation.

Expanding Extension’s focus

CSU ExtensionFast forward to the 1960s, when cultural movements and population migrations from rural to urban areas spurred needed change to the traditional model of Extension. The organization broadened its channels of expertise on campus beyond agricultural sciences and home economics to include horticulture, nutrition, personal safety and community development. These new focus areas enabled agents to better meet the needs of Coloradans living in urban areas, such as Denver, while continuing Extension’s foundational commitment to agriculture.

With the change in programmatic focus came a change in the agents, themselves. Prior to the civil rights movement and affirmative action court rulings in the 1960s and ‘70s, women were restricted to home economics positions within Extension and were not permitted to assume positions of leadership in the counties. The first female county directors assumed their new roles in the 1970s, and now women make up the majority of agents in Colorado.

CSU Extension continued to evolve throughout the next decades, facing a farm and energy crisis in the 1980s that led to layoffs and massive restructuring as well as a reprioritization of focus areas in the 1990s. Advances in technology and the introduction of the internet shifted the structure of the fact bulletin, moving many resources online where they became accessible to more citizens of the state, and beyond its borders. As environmental concerns grew at the start of the 21st century, agents began work in climate smart agriculture and energy conservation.

Changing Colorado, changing Extension

CSU ExtensionColorado’s population is changing rapidly, growing in number and in diversity, and CSU Extension is changing with it. Today’s agent juggles a variety of community needs that range from traditional areas such as 4-H youth development and agriculture to new issues such as fighting opioid addiction and promoting civil discourse.

Within the past decade, innovative solutions have emerged such as the Family Leadership Training Institute, a one-of-a-kind training program focused on building individual and community capacity for inclusive collaboration and civic engagement. Families and youth in the program, many from underrepresented populations, seek strategies to respond to pressing social, health, and economic issues in their communities along with public administrators and elected officials.

To further reach the changing demographics and underserved communities in Colorado, agents in Boulder County are delivering classes in Spanish for non-profits engaged in urban community resilience, as well as overseeing the translation of fact bulletins (now called fact sheets) into Spanish.

Just as Gundell embraced technology to deliver community education back in the 1950s through his radio program and television show, today’s CSU Extension agents are meeting new demands in new ways. They are developing smartphone apps for Coloradans to identify plants in-the-field; they’re working with colleges to introduce innovative programs to tackle modern issues; they’re using paper rockets to teach S.T.E.M. subjects to youth outside of the classroom.

While the methods continue to evolve and the issues will inevitably change, the Extension agent remains, boots on the ground, research in hand, ready to solve problems in the communities they serve and love.