What is agricultural extension?

The definition of extension that was agreed upon by all the Australian state and territory governments back in 2006 was “Extension is the process of enabling change in individuals, communities and industries involved with primary industries and natural resource management.” 

In today’s blog post we’re going to explore what agricultural extension is, as we think this is one of those frequently asked questions that people working in extension get asked all the time, but we usually struggle to give a succinct, straight forward answer.

A quick Google search shows that extension these days is a word mostly associated with web browser add-ons! Essentially extension is a word that means “a part that is added to something to enlarge or prolong it”. So hence we have extension cord, extension ladder, house extension and an extension to the due date for an assignment. 

So no wonder people look at us strangely when we say we work in extension! While agricultural extension is relatively well known in the northern hemisphere, especially Europe and the United States, it’s not really part of the vernacular in the southern hemisphere, including Australia and New Zealand. 

it’s actually a little unclear where and when the term agricultural extension was first used. However farmer education can be traced back at least 2000 years, especially in China, where they developed agricultural policies and disseminated practical farming advice. 

In Europe, the Irish potato famine that started in 1845 provided a response that is an example of a well organised community education program for farmers. The Earl of Clarendon asked the Royal Agricultural Improvement Society of Ireland to appoint itinerant lecturers. These folk travelled around the worst affected districts, showing farmers how to improve their cultivation practices and how to grow alternative crops. 

And what we refer to as extension was first used in Britain in the 1840s to describe universities communicating or extending their research results to the wider community. They did it to extend the reach of the universities beyond their physical campuses into the neighbouring communities. These “university extension” programs soon spread to other institutions in Britain and across to the United States. They became well-established by the end of the 19th century. Although agriculture was one of the main topics being extended, it was just one of many, and agricultural extension was yet to be used as a term.  

From there agricultural extension started to take off in Europe in what is now modern day Germany. Itinerant farm advisers were being employed under the auspices of central agricultural societies. By the close of the nineteenth century, agricultural extension systems modelled on the German experience had spread through Europe. 

If you have a look on Wikipedia, you’ll find the English translation of how different countries describe what we call extension. In Arabic it means “guidance” and in Dutch it means “lighting the path” which I think is a great metaphor for extension. The French refer to it as “popularisation” and the Spanish call it “training” or “capacity building”. 

We both agree that the Dutch metaphor is very apt. Lighting the path sounds so good! Anyway, back to the story… all this effort in Europe was keenly watched by the United States and Canada, where agricultural societies had become common during the first half of the 19th century and supported itinerant lecturers in agriculture. However, the creation of land-grant colleges there meant that agricultural extension was really about to take off!

So let’s detour for a quick American history lesson. The Morrill Act was sponsored by Justin Morrill while Abraham Lincoln was the president and it became law in 1862. The actual title of it was “An Act Donating Public Lands to the Several States and Territories which may provide Colleges for the Benefit of Agriculture and the Mechanic Arts”. It  provided each state with 30,000 acres of Federal land for each member in  Congress. These parcels of land were then sold by the various states to fund public colleges that focused on agricultural and mechanical research, instead of the traditional liberal arts. 

A second Morrill Act was passed 28 years later in 1890, aimed at the former Confederate states. This time however, it provided cash instead of land. Then in 1994 another round of cash grants established the land-grant colleges for native Americans. All up, about 70 colleges were funded this way, including Cornell, Washington State and Texas A&M. In fact the letters “A&M” are an abbreviation for “Agricultural and Mechanical”, linking back to the university’s heritage. So that’s what they mean by land grant colleges, but let’s get back to our main story…

The next big step forward was in 1914 when the Cooperative Extension Service was established in America, enabling the cooperation of federal, state, and local county governments. The state land grant colleges are central to the system and help diffuse practical information relating to agriculture and home economics. You could say they extended the reach of the academic research, so that it was relevant to the general farming community. 

So that’s Britain, Europe and North America… but what about extension in our part of the world, Australia and New Zealand? Historically both Australia and New Zealand had a government funded agricultural extension service, but that’s changed over time.

The history of extension in Queensland is outlined below as an example of extension in Australia. 

The Department of Agriculture was established in 1887 and the staff helped encourage the fledgling dairy and cropping industries to produce food, as at that time most of those products had to be imported. They created a travelling dairy, where dairy specialists would travel by train across Queensland carrying examples of the latest machinery, such as cream separators, to demonstrate them to dairy farmers.

Over the past 20 years, industry and private extension services have taken increasing roles in delivering extension. Currently the extent of private sector involvement varies across industries and regions. There has been an increasing tendency for public sector extension to move from “doing” extension activities to “enabling” others to do it, such as private consultants and not-for-profit organisations. 

The story in New Zealand has been similar, in that it had publicly funded extension. This was the Advisory Service of the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, but that ceased at the end of the 1980s when it was restructured. The government encouraged each of the primary sectors to collect and use their own levies to fund research and extension. This has meant a proliferation of private extension providers, from farm consultants through to resellers such as fertiliser company reps.

Today, extension is still a widely used term around the world. But other words are also used to describe agricultural extension. “Rural Advisory Services” is a common alternative. There is an international organisation, the Global Forum for Rural Advisory Services, or GFRAS for short, that is focused on enhancing the performance of advisory services, so that they can better serve farm families and rural producers. In the longer term they seek to contribute to improved livelihoods in rural areas and the sustainable reduction of hunger and poverty. 

In Australia and New Zealand our professional association is APEN, the Australasia-Pacific Extension Network. It allows like-minded people to share their extension experiences and ideas at conferences. There are about 500 members across Australia, New Zealand and beyond, and a members directory helps us keep in touch and find others with whom we can collaborate. 

And this enablers of change site is living proof of that because we first met when Denise came to Toowoomba to participate in an APEN conference John was running back in 2001, and many years later John came to Christchurch for an APEN conference Denise was running! There seems to be a nice symmetry to that… but alas we digress!

Well that actually concludes our brief history of extension and hopefully it has provided some extra background. But before we go – a quick debate – should we still call it extension – or do we need to embrace change ourselves?

Denise says: “I say yes, we should still call it extension! We’ve covered the long and amazing history of the word extension, so why should we change it? Many parts of the world are very familiar with the word, and use it in the context of agricultural extension.” 

“I use the fact that people are unfamiliar with extension as a chance to talk it up! My go to way of talking about extension is that it is a tool for facilitating change on-farm. There are lots of tools for facilitating change – governments use these all the time. Things like taxes, incentives, rules and regulations. In agriculture there’s a history of researchers and farmers working together with extension people, to help ensure that there are good options for farmers to achieve the goals they have for their farm business. So extension it is!”

John says: “Arrgh, no! While the term extension may be in common use in the northern hemisphere, it’s just not part of the vernacular in Australia or New Zealand. As good communicators, we know we should use words appropriate to our target audience. So instead of trying to get them to change, we should change ourselves.” 

“Another problem is that extension itself has morphed over time, but kept the same name. So back in the 1960s it was all about top-down technology transfer and nowadays it’s more about collaborative approaches and innovation systems.  Depending on when you worked in extension, you could easily have quite a different understanding of the word extension.”

“If a person I’ve just met at a barbeque asks me what I do for work, I avoid using the word extension at all costs. I just say that I help enable change in agriculture, so that farming can be more profitable and sustainable.” 

“I like the definition of extension that was agreed upon by all the Australian state and territory governments back in 2006. Extension is the process of enabling change in individuals, communities and industries involved with primary industries and natural resource management. The State Extension Leaders Network, of which I was a member, published that in a booklet about the role of extension and I’ll include the link to it in the show notes.”

“But I reckon we should change our language, and call it something meaningful to the average Aussie or Kiwi, such as… enabling change. And then we’d call ourselves Enablers of change, instead of extensionists. I think that has a better ring to it!”

So you’ve heard our thoughts, now we’d like to hear yours! Add a comment below the blog and tell us your thoughts about extension, and tell us what you prefer to call it. We want this to be a two-way conversation, so join in by sharing your thoughts and ideas with us! 

Thanks folks for reading this Enablers of change blog post! Remember to subscribe if you would like to know when new episodes are available, and tell your friends if you’ve liked what you heard and leave us a comment.

All the best until we meet again!

References and links

Van den Ban and Hawkins (1996) Agricultural Extension

Gwyn E. Jones Chris Garforth (1997) Chapter 1 – The history, development, and future of agricultural extension: http://www.fao.org/docrep/W5830E/w5830e03.htm 

State Extension Leaders Network (2006) Enabling change in rural and regional Australia: The role of extension in achieving sustainable and productive futures, available from: https://www.academia.edu/8372595

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Naser Zamani
1 year ago

Thanks for the video. I reckon “Enablers of Change” is a good concept. What extension agents do is all about change in different levels: knowledge, attitude, behaviour, institutional levels and final results. It reminds me of “change agents” which has been used by some extension researchers in the literature.

David Bicknell
David Bicknell
1 year ago

My thinking is that enabling change is just one component of extension, and that extension these days is intended to achieve a specific behaviour change. That SELN paper that listed all the ‘policy tools for effecting change’ missed the opportunity to say that they were the toolkit of extension. The program to get people to wear seatbelts was/is an extension program, and the government used many of the ‘policy tools’ to get that behaviour adopted.
Think beyond agriculture to get a more useful and effective explanation of the purpose of extension.

1 year ago
Reply to  David Bicknell

Hi David! Thanks for responding – and we agree. Extension is applied in a range of areas (seatbelts to agriculture). Our background is in agriculture so we are starting here but keen to learn from all areas where people are working to achieve change. Let us know if there’s a particular project or person you’d like to hear from. Thanks!

Greg Leach
Greg Leach
1 year ago

Thanks John for the paper.?Having pondered this question for a long time, and then moving to a more political and policy oriented part of the agricultural industry in Australia, I still find that extension is a very common term amongst farmers, consultants, government staff and political stakeholders. Agree that the SELN definition and toolbox was a good collection of concepts that are included within ‘extension’. For me, what has been lacking is national recognition of the place of the extension policy instrument and its function in enabling achievement of desired outcomes. It would be a great if a group such… Read more »

Allah Bakhsh
Allah Bakhsh
8 months ago

Enablers of Change

6 months ago

Agricultural extension service solving problems for farmers and giving power to knowledge for farmers.

Dr Bilal Ahmad
Dr Bilal Ahmad
5 months ago

Now the Agricultural Extension has to developed technologies for the promotion of sustained Agricultural systems by promotion of organic agriculture by developing some ICT Applications.

27 days ago

If extension in “South Africa” remains reactionary it shall remain called extension.