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Universal U: The Long Reach of the U
By Mark Steil, February 2001
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One of the original land grant missions of the University of Minnesota was to bring education and its benefits to all residents of the state, whether they attended the school or not. The U of M's extension service was created to implement that mission. Originally set up to serve mainly farmers, the extension has evolved along with changes in the state's population. It now serves both rural and urban areas and reaches out to some of the newest population groups in the state.

The Nobles 4-H Rainbows offer children a place to make friends and learn. The Rainbows also break a long held tradition - that 4-H is solely for farm kids. View slide show of Extension over the years.
(MPR Photo - Mark Steil)

AS SOON AS SCHOOL IS OVER on Friday afternoons, a group of kids in Worthington heads over to the county courthouse for a weekly meeting. These children are part of what may the university's best known extension program, 4-H. But it's not the sort of farm-based 4-H group most people might expect. This one serves a wide range of city kids including Hispanic, Asian and African immigrants. The Extension Service's Leanne Ennenga runs the meeting.

"I think for a lot of the kids, they don't feel that they're welcomed in other areas of the community," says Ennenga. "For the most part, they go to school and they come home and then the only other activity is hanging out."

Ennenga says the Nobles 4-H Rainbows, as they're known, offer the children a place to make friends and learn. The Rainbows also break a long-held tradition - that 4-H is solely for farm kids. That change did not go unnoticed. Ennega won't go into detail, but she says some people feel the Rainbows aren't what the 4-H program is all about.

"What we're doing here is giving a whole new population a voice in the community. And there are people who aren't happy with that," says Ennenga.

But Ennenga says reaching minority groups meshes well with the Extension's original goal - using university resources to help people of all groups and economic backgrounds develop skills and knowledge.

Farmers were the first group targeted by Extension, and they are still the ones most closely linked with the service. But the state and federal laws that set up the service lay out a broader mission than just growing corn; they talk about serving "the sons and daughters of the mechanics and farmers of Minnesota."

U of M Extension Assistant Dean and Director Jeanne Markell says the service must constantly adjust, to keep up with changes in the state's population and economy.

"What are the ways we can reach not just rural people, but urban folks, and people who may be disconnected from their university in a direct educational way? What role can extension continue to play?" Markell asks.

1885: Minnesota Legislature authorizes agricultural experiment stations to be built to test new farming and forestry techniques.

1914: Congress Passes the Smith-Lever Act which establishes a national cooperative agricultural extension service funded by federal, state and county governments.

1930: University of Minnesota researchers release three new corn hybrids which many farmers quickly adopt.

1946: Agricultural experiment stations begin efforts to develop better soybean varieties for Minnesota.

1958: The Minnesota Landscape Arboretum is founded near Chaska.

Even before extension came along, the university attempted to reach out beyond its campus borders. University experts would set up shop in a town for several days, conducting training sessions. A more formalized outreach began in 1885, when the Legislature authorized the first university agricultural experiment stations. Still in existence today, the experiment stations were original testing grounds for new crops. But Markell says some people pushed for an even greater university presence in the countryside.

"There really wasn't a good way to get a lot of that knowledge-generated research out to the people, so they could use it in their day-to-day lives. Extension was really created to do that," says Markell.

The modern extension service was born in 1907 when the state Legislature authorized hiring the first county agents. It was an idea many states were experimenting with, and seven years later, federal legislation cleared the way for a nationwide extension system funded jointly by county, state and federal governments.

Roland Abraham worked more than 40 years in the U of M Extension, and wrote a history of the service. He says at first, farmers were skeptical of the college-educated Extension agents, calling them "book farmers." But he says the skepticism faded when they planted some of the new crops the book farmers promoted.

"Farmers who planted hybrid seed in the early years, could see the results were significantly better than the older varieties they were using up to that time," Abraham says.

Roland Abraham worked for the Extension Service for 40 years. He was state director from 1968-1979. When Abraham was a field agent in southewest Minnesota in the 1950s, he had a weekly radio show on KWOA in Worthington. Listen to an excerpt from December, 1951. The original recording was made by a wire recorder, and was then transferred to a vinyl record.
(MPR Photo - Melanie Sommer)

University plant scientists developed new varieties of disease-resistant wheat, winter-hardy alfalfa and more productive corn. With an office in every county, the Extension Service became a prime source of information about the new crops.

Retired southwest Minnesota farmer Art Spronk remembers his dad was always eager to measure off a test plot for a new variety of barley or oats.

"Clem Chase was the county agent. And if there was a new variety, Clem was on the phone, or he would drive down, and say he'd get us a couple of bushels. I remember my dad marking off 150 steps north and 150 steps west to keep it separate from the old variety," says Spronk.

This tight connection between farmers and the extension still exists today. In fact, Spronk says he intends to plant a new variety of barley this spring made possible through the university's Extension Service.

But some say extension services spend too much time on farm programs, at the expense of other efforts. Virginia Tech professor George McDowell has written a book about the future of extension. He says the debate over how much farm emphasis is too much is going on all over the nation.

"The agricultural mission of the land grant universities still is a terribly, terribly important piece of it and desirable and necessary. But frankly, about two percent of the people in the nation are farming, and about 40 percent to 50 percent of extension resources are committed to agriculture," says McDowell.

The urban reach of the Extension Service can be seen when the Nobles Rainbows recite the traditional "head, heart, hands and health" 4-H pledge at their weekly meeting. Nearby tables hold the tools of this afternoon's work: cookies for decorating, games and other projects. If Extension Service is most of all about human development, rural and city, then 4-H youth leader Kim Green is one of its success stories.

"I really didn't think I was a people person. But after I've been in 4-H for a while, it just makes me feel so good that I can help little kids that are having troubles," says Green.

Extension Service officials will use comments like that to help decide what sorts of projects they'll take on in the future. The service will always have a strong presence in rural areas, but it also wants to increase its role in urban settings. It's all part of a goal to make the widest possible use of the research and knowledge contained at the University of Minnesota.

Visit the University Extension Service web site.

Mark Steil covers southwestern Minnesota for Minnesota Public Radio's Mainstreet unit. Reach him via e-mail at