The History of Extension Education


The mission of the University of Missouri Extension is to extend research-based information and education to improve the lives of citizens. From time to time, it is important to revisit history and reflect on how Extension has evolved.


The practice of living off the land is well documented in early American history.  Tisquantum, more commonly known as Squanto, was a Native North American of the Patuxet tribe that occupied the coastal area west of Cape Cod Bay in the late 16th early 17th century.  To support their society, agricultural practices included clearing fields, breaking ground, and fertilizing the soil with fish and crustaceans and weeding was typically done with clam-shell hoes.  This horticulture practice was necessary to accumulate surplus for winter needs and trade with the English settlers. Legend has it that after a period of famine, Squanto was credited with giving the first “Extension” demonstration to the Pilgrims on proper planting and harvesting techniques. Following that growing season, the first Thanksgiving feast or harvest festival occurred with more Indians present than Pilgrims.


Some 200 years later, the United States made formal attempts to continue this teaching and Extension through various Acts of Congress.  The land-grant mission was established by the Morrill Act of 1862 to promote the liberal and practical education of various social classes, pursuits, and professions in life. It was followed by the Hatch Act of 1887 to ensure that the necessary basic and applied agricultural research would be conducted by state colleges of agriculture in cooperation with the federal government, which is now represented by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The Morrill Act of 1890, which established Lincoln University, provided additional funds to ensure that the land grants were open to all citizens without regard to race.


In 1899, Congressman Willard Vandiver conveyed, “I come from a state that raises corn and cotton, cockleburs and Democrats, and frothy eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies me. I’m from Missouri, and you have got to show me”.

The University of Missouri (MU) land-grant institution has a history of innovation and excellence in soil science, research and Extension.  Historic Sanborn Field, third oldest long-term studies of its kind in the world has yielded important research findings since its establishment in 1888. Only the University of Illinois Morrow Plots and Rothamsted in England are older research sites.


In 1913, ten University of Missouri “Farm Advisors” were charged with assisting farmers with an epidemic of hog cholera, which threatened to destroy swine herds throughout Missouri. With the passage of the 1914 Smith-Lever act, 27 years after the land grant establishment, the Extension Service was in full swing. The Extension Service was established to provide a means of making research information readily available to those on the land and to assist in solving their individual problems. The Land Grant College was charged with the mission of taking unbiased research-based information to citizens at the local level. 


Since 1914, Extension educators have been responsible for adult education and improving the lives and economy of citizens at the local level.  It is well known that this delivery model enables adults to have the ultimate determination in what action they take because of that education.

Community engagement is critical to the success of Extension over the past century. Constituent feedback is instant which gives the Extension specialist a feeling of the pulse of the individual, community, or leader. That pulse, provides great incite on how to develop new and improved programming to serve the needs of the citizens at the local level.


Locally elected county, regional and state Extension council members serve as the interface between MU Extension and the local and state government. Council members have many opportunities to be key communicators and advocates for the valuable programs and work that Extension does in communities across the state.


Extension Specialists are often referred to as change agents.  While the culture, socio-economics, technologies, research and development change, so too does the Extension Specialist.  The ability of Extension to develop new educational programs, as needs change, keeps it as relevant today as to when Squanto educated the Pilgrims.


Source: Todd Lorenz, MU Extension Horticulture/Agronomy Specialist