Cooperative Extension History

Sharing the knowledge generated through research remains the goal of the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service. The organization’s mission is to help individuals, families and communities put research-based knowledge to work for economic prosperity, environmental stewardship and an improved quality of life. This publication summarizes the founding of the Extension Service, its current operations and the impact it has had upon the lives of North Carolinians.

Extension’s beginnings | Extension today | A history of successin agriculture | … in natural resources management | … in family and consumer sciences | ... in 4-H youth development | … in community and rural development

Helping people put knowledge to work so that they can improve their lives — that has long been the mandate, and the essence, of the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service. Formally established in 1914, the Extension Service is a partnership of county, state and federal governments. Throughout its history, it has focused on providing people with learning opportunities that allow them to benefit from research-based knowledge.

Extension’s beginnings

Extension work reaches back to the last century, when parallel 19th-century federal and state movements emphasized the need for helping working-class people gain practical education to improve their lives. Nationally, Sen. Justin Morrill of Vermont and others promoted the notion that education should be practical and available to the masses. In North Carolina, a group of young, progress-minded men came together to form the Watauga Club. The group emphasized the need for an industrial school to serve the state’s people.

In 1862 the federal Morrill Act provided funds from the sale of public lands to establish colleges for teaching agriculture and mechanical arts. In North Carolina, the funds helped finance what is now known as North Carolina State University, founded in 1887. The Second Morrill Act, passed in 1890, extended the benefits of the original act to the black population of 16 Southern states. As a result, North Carolina A&T State University was established.

From the start, administrators at both N.C. State and N.C. A&T State realized the importance of extension work in bringing research-based knowledge to bear on the lives of farmers, families and others. The 1887 Hatch Act allowed for the creation of agricultural experiment stations to conduct agricultural research and discover scientific knowledge to be shared with students and farmers. The Smith-Lever Act of 1914 strengthened the concept of service to the community by creating a cooperative system through which land-grant college administrators could join with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to conduct demonstration work. It was this act that formally established what was then called the North Carolina Agricultural Extension Service.

The federal and state cooperation inspired by the Smith-Lever Act is enhanced by the added partnership of county governments. Since the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service’s inception, county boards of commissioners have provided support to ensure that their citizenry benefit from its work.

Extension today
Ira O. Schaub, North Carolina’s first Extension youth-development agent, once wrote:

“Extension work is a philosophy … And the satisfaction that one gets in seeing the improvement in the standard of living of the people served is the most satisfying remuneration that anyone can experience.”

His words, written in 1952, ring as true today as they have throughout the history of the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service. Extension is continuing its mission of helping the state’s people use research-based knowledge to improve the quality of their lives. Programs are available to people of all ages and from all walks of life.

The North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service has its headquarters at N.C. State University. The service and its partners — North Carolina A&T State University, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and state and county governments — compose a dynamic system for North Carolina.

Extension specialists and researches at N.C. State and N.C. A&T State provide technical training support for Extension’s field faculty. The field faculty — the bridge between the state’s land-grant colleges and its citizens — are based in Extension centers in each of North Carolina’s 100 counties and on the Cherokee Reservation. Each county’s field faculty members design programs that focus on local needs. Often these programs enhance the work of other local, state and federal agencies and grassroots organizations that have joined with Extension to improve the quality of life in North Carolina.

To ensure that the work of all Extension faculty and staff members truly reflects state and local needs, some 27,000 lay advisers are called upon to help keep university researchers and Extension professionals informed of local concerns, to set priorities and to market the organization’s programs.

A history of success

As the state’s economic base has grown from its agrarian roots, so has the Extension Service. Today, in developing programs that address issues of local and national concern, Extension educators recognize how interdependent the lives of the state’s rural and urban people have become. They also recognize that our environment, our economy and our families are inextricably intertwined.

As they have worked to improve the social, economic and physical well-being of the state’s people, Extension professionals have had a history of success in agriculture and natural resources management; family and consumer issues; 4-H youth development and community and rural development.

In agriculture …

Efforts to improve agricultural production were at the heart of Extension’s early efforts. In 1907, J.F. Eagles became the first North Carolina farmer to undertake a demonstration under the supervision of a county agent. He agreed to grow 2.5 acres of corn and 2 acres of cotton according to U.S. Department of Agriculture soil fertility recommendations. These recommendations proved important for the long-term profitability of his Statesville farm. “I don’t think I ever would have succeeded had it not been for the use of limestone and clover,” Eagles said. “The best medicine for old, worn-out soils is good plowing, liberal applications of limestone, and phosphoric acid and red clover.”

Subsequent successes in research and extension enabled farmers to achieve higher yields on less land. Today, thanks to such efforts, about 80 percent of North Carolina’s labor force has been freed to contribute to other economically important industries, and for the 1.8 percent of the population that remains in production agriculture, having up-to-date, research-based information is critical for maintaining competitiveness.

By helping agriculture, the land-grant approach of research, teaching and extension helps the state. After all, agriculture contributes 21 percent of the gross state product and provides for 20 percent of the state’s jobs.

Extension efforts helped eradicate the boll weevil and, thus, enabled North Carolina farmers to raise their cotton acreage from 42,000 acres in 1978 to more than 700,000 acres in 2004. Land-grant efforts also have helped North Carolina farmers to diversify from the traditional production of row crops such as tobacco, corn and soybeans. As a result, livestock, vegetables and Christmas trees have become significant contributors to the state’s economy.

Turfgrass, too, has become increasingly important for both rural and urban areas of the state. Managed grass occupies more than 2 million acres, and the nursery, greenhouse, Christmas tree and turfgrass/sod industries generate $1.2 billion in farm income each year. Cooperative Extension provides managers and residents with the education and assistance they need to manage landscapes effectively.

Extension’s Master Gardener volunteers serve as a valuable resource in helping the state’s homeowners, providing information on how to maintain lawns and gardens while protecting and enhancing environmental quality. There are more than 3,000 active Master Gardeners in North Carolina.

In natural resources management
Natural resources are critical to the economic viability and the quality of life in North Carolina, and Extension has long been a partner in disseminating information about the value of conserving and managing those resources. Efforts in the 1930s focused on soil conservation, and they have broadened with a growing awareness of the importance of natural resources.

In fact, N.C. State University has become a nationally recognized leader in extension water-quality efforts. Extension has played a significant role in helping the state’s farmers adopt such practices as integrated pest management (IPM), reduced tillage and controlled drainage. Through IPM, farmers can reduce their use of pesticides without lowering yields, and, through reduced tillage, they can protect water and soil resources from erosion.

With controlled drainage, farmers can increase their yields and significantly reduce the threat of water pollution posed by fertilizers and pesticides. N.C. State University scientists developed the controlled drainage method, and university Extension efforts have led to its adoption on more than 600,000 acres of North Carolina cropland and forestland. Controlled drainage has led to increased corn and soybean yields of 10 percent — worth $5 million annually. In addition to the economic advantage, state government has deemed the environmental benefits so great that it shares with farmers the cost of installing controlled drainage structures.

Extension’s natural resources programs also encompass North Carolina’s forests, which cover more than 17 million acres. Because forests are a major economic, recreational and ecological resource, Extension helps farmers learn to manage their woodlots for income and other benefits, promotes the reestablishment of the long-leaf pine and works with loggers and landowners managing for timber and wildlife. North Carolina’s Extension programs related to sedimentation control, forest stewardship, Christmas tree production and wood processing are nationally recognized.

Extension’s educational efforts in the natural resource area extend well beyond farms and forests. By networking with state and federal partners, industry and other interested groups, Extension works to address waste-management issues in urban and rural areas. In addition, Extension helps individuals learn to manage their homes’ indoor and outdoor environments through recycling, water screening and effective lawn care. It also provides young people with the natural resource knowledge and experience necessary to provide public leadership in the next generation.

In family and consumer sciences  …

Early family and consumer sciences work in North Carolina began with Girls’ Canning Clubs. Back in 1912, with the help of a home demonstration agent, 14-year-old Margaret Brown and her sister joined a club in Mecklenburg County. “The purpose of the Girls’ Canning Clubs is to give farm girls and opportunity to make some money,” Margaret said. “I enrolled as a member just because I thought it would do me good in some way.” Did it ever: The sisters’ efforts yielded $223.50 in profit from sales of lettuce, fresh and canned tomatoes, ketchup and pickles. Rewards for Margaret continued through her college days, when she persuaded a college president to buy her canned goods to help pay for her tuition.

Given the success, the clubs became as attractive to adults as they were to young girls. According to pioneer extension worker Jane S. McKimmon:

“By 1916 women had taken the bit in their teeth and were running away with the organization. They were hungry for the new experience of learning to do things through seeing them done; for the opportunity of coming together in interesting work; for the chance to produce an income which would furnish them with things they had so long desired; and for an outlet through which they could express themselves and get recognition from others for what they had done.”

These early home demonstration efforts led to the creation of Extension Homemakers organizations, now known as Extension and Community Associations. Throughout their history, these groups have been devoted to helping their members and others improve the quality of their lives. Their commitment to volunteerism has evidenced itself in efforts to establish victory gardens in wartime and community clinics in times of epidemics. Homemakers clubs also have set up community bookmobiles and libraries and sponsored extensive literacy programs.

As families have grown more complex, so has Extension’s approach to family and consumer issues. Today, the focus is on education programs for families in both rural and urban areas. Programs help families and consumers better understand budgeting, credit use, economic loss protection, health-care costs, financial planning and economic choices. Food quality and safety programs give food-service personnel, dietary managers, community volunteers and care givers the knowledge and resources they need for safe food preparation. Extension also works to improve people’s awareness of healthy, safety and environmental issues; to reduce household wastes; to expand support for groundbreaking rural health initiatives; to address elder care and aging issues; and to help families learn about the importance of nutrition and physical activity for better health.

Educational efforts are enhanced through networking and partnerships with local and state agencies and organizations. The efforts are multiplied by volunteers throughout the state and by paraprofessionals in an innovative food and nutrition program for limited-resource families.

In youth development …

Extension’s 4-H program has its roots in the Girls’ Canning Clubs and Boys’ Corn Clubs, which were started in 1909 to help young men increase their families’ farm yields. Back then, the average corn yield was about 18 bushes per acre, but agriculturists knew that much higher yields were possible.
Heeding a recommendation for using fertilizer, Charles W. Parker, a member of North Carolina’s fist Boys’ Corn Club, began spreading stable manure on his cropland in Ahoskie. Within two years, his yield had grown to 196 bushels per acre — a terrific yield even by today’s standards. Fellow club member Troy Newsome said that news of the success spread rapidly. “It created so much excitement that folks came from miles around to see his corn patch,” he said.

Such early successes with hands-on, research-based learning provided a solid start for today’s 4-H program. The four Hs are head, hands, heart and health. With this focus on the total development of young people, 4-H continues to help prepare them to be responsible, capable citizens. It remains one of the state’s most successful grassroots youth organizations, reaching nearly 200,000 young people on farms and in cities throughout North Carolina. More than 25,00 volunteers provide role models in a contemporary program with a membership that closely mirrors the state’s demographics.

While 4-H enjoys a reputation of program excellence in the traditional areas of agriculture, life sciences and family and consumer sciences, the N.C. 4-H program also is at the forefront of contemporary public issues such as child care, workforce preparedness, leadership development and environmental stewardship. By taking part in 4-H young people gain academic and interpersonal skills that provide a foundation for their future.

These 4-H’ers, in turn, inspire and teach their peers and provide valuable community service. Consider Lisa Young of Raleigh, who learned performance skills and gained knowledge about health issues through a 4-H performing-arts troupe. That troupe then presented a skin-cancer education program to more than 100 elementary school students. “I’ll be satisfied if we make a difference to just one child,” Lisa said. “If kids stay out of the sun between 11 and 2, wear sunscreen and don’t get skin cancer because of our 4-H efforts, then I will have achieved something worthwhile.”

In community and rural development …

As home to nearly half the state’s population, rural areas and communities of North Carolina are vital to the state’s well being. The health and viability of these areas are closely related to the strength of agriculture, natural resources, families and youths. Early on, Extension professionals recognized this link and set out to help individuals and groups come together to make their communities more satisfying places to live and work. In the 1990s, this area of Extension work became increasingly important.
Through its community and rural development programs, Extension works to build communities by training people to understand organizational structure and leadership. Such training helps participants learn to become leaders, to assess community needs and to work effectively with other agencies and organizations to address issues of concern.

Some of the most important and difficult issues facing today’s communities relate to the environment. Drawing upon research-based knowledge of the natural world plus its experience in community development, Extension is helping communities and businesses throughout the state effectively manage their wastes through recycling, disposal and land application programs.

Extension also has established and operates an acclaimed institute designed to help state and federal agency personnel, representatives of industry and environmental groups and others develop skills in collaborative problem solving. Now a model for other states, this program has given individuals the skills to work effectively in their local communities to develop solutions to complex and often controversial public policy issues. Such efforts are helping to reinvigorate and maintain communities so that they are healthy and viable places that enhance the social, economic and environmental well being of North Carolinians.

This document, originally published in 1998, was revised in 2005.


The Morrill Act provides each state with grants from federal land sales. States can use the lands to set up public institutions to teach agriculture, military tactics, mechanical arts and classical studies. These institutions would provide members of the working classes with a liberal yet practical education.

The Hatch Act provides for the creation of agricultural experiment stations. State legislation authorizes the establishment of an agricultural and mechanical arts college at Raleigh. The institution is now known as N.C. State University.

The Second Morrill Act extends access to higher education by allowing for the creation of new land-grant colleges in states where segregation denied minorities access to land-grant institutions. N.C. A&T State University is established.

Dr. Seaman A. Knapp sets up a demonstration that would become a key technique for extension work. His efforts in Texas improve cultivation practices at a time when the boll weevil nearly killed the cotton industry in North Carolina, but thanks to the work of Cooperative Extension and other agencies, its threat has been contained and cotton now generates $200 million annually for the state’s farmers.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture sends C.R. Hudson to North Carolina to start agricultural demonstration efforts. James A. Butler is appointed as the first county agent, serving in Iredell.

N.C. State officials sign a memorandum of understanding for cooperative demonstration work with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The agreement provides for the college to support the development of Farmers’ Boys’ Clubs, or Corn Clubs, the forerunner of 4-H. I.O. Schaub is named the first boys’ and girls’ club agent.

Neil Alexander Bailey becomes the state’s first African-American Extension agent. Working from his wagon, he traveled Guilford, Randolph and Rockingham counties giving demonstrations wherever he could gather farmers.

Jane McKimmon is hired to develop girls’ club work in North Carolina.

Woodrow Wilson signs the Smith-Lever Act authorizing land-grant college administrators to join with the USDA to support the expansion of demonstration work. Benjamin W. Kilgore becomes the N.C. Agricultural Extension Service’s first director.

Extension helps the nation meet its wartime needs by increasing wheat acreage significantly, from an average of 47 million acres annually in 1913 to 74 million in 1919, and encouraging farm production, marketing and conserving of perishable products by canning, drying and preserving.

1920s and ’30s
Extension’s role changes during the Depression, with more emphasis on efficiency of production and marketing. North Carolina’s governor calls for family food production as an anti-poverty program, so Extension concentrates on family food supply.

County governments, N.C. State, the State Department of Agriculture, private industry, civic bodies and ordinary individuals pull together to create Swannanoa 4-H Camp in Western North Carolina. It is the oldest of the six 4-H camps and centers operated in North Carolina today.

For the first time, every North Carolina county has the services of a farm demonstration agent.

With World War II comes a switch from reducing agricultural output to all-out production. Victory gardens spring up. 4-H’ers handle scrap-metal drives, and home economists emphasize food conservation. Nationwide, some 20 million victory gardens produce more than 40 percent of the vegetables grown in 1943 for fresh consumption.

4-H goes international with the establishment of the International Four-H Youth Exchange (IFYE, first called the International Farm Youth Exchange). Its goal: to create a positive, productive education for American and foreign rural youth in the fields of agriculture and international relations

4-H expands to offer educational programs involving many new subject areas and to deal with social issues. 4-H’ers select projects and activities that fit their interests and needs.

The first 4-H camp in North Carolina for African-Americans is established after a group organizes a fund-raising drive to buy land in Onslow County. The camp was named for John W. Mitchell, an African-American pioneer in Extension work in North Carolina.

4-H, traditionally a program for rural youth, was expanded to urban areas, and community clubs, rather than schools, become the focus.

The Civil Rights Act promotes racial integration of separate Extension programs. African-American Extension workers are brought into the mainstream of Extension’s organizational structure in North Carolina.

With a goal of having “Better-Fed Families,” Cooperative Extension launches the Expanded Food and Nutrition Program. The program provides nutrition education to families at or near the poverty level.

As interest in home gardening mushrooms, Cooperative Extension offices are overwhelmed with requests for horticultural information. Wake County responds by giving volunteers free training with the expectation that they’ll share their knowledge with others. By 2000, more than 3,000 Master Gardener volunteers are actively involved in Extension work in North Carolina, providing information on environmentally sound gardening practices to more than 600,000 gardeners each year.

The need for school-age child care rises as the number of single-parent families and families with two working parents rises. Cooperative Extension’s 4-H program launches a school-age care initiative to train after-school care providers, address licensing issues and expand the availability of quality after-school care. In 2003, 2,386 school-age care providers received 10,690 hours of Extension instruction.

The North Carolina Agricultural Extension Service changes its name to the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service to emphasize the variety of Extension programs and its cooperative nature.

North Carolina Cooperative Extension launches the first university Extension Web site in the nation. Today, 23,000 visitors access the site each day in search of timely, relevant information on topics ranging from agriculture to zoology.

Water quality becomes a major concern in North Carolina, and Extension responds with an innovative educational approach reaching urban and rural communities throughout the widespread Neuse River Basin. The approach pays off with improving river health and a 30 percent drop in nitrogen that meets state governments’ mandate by 2003.

Cooperative Extension plays a crucial role in helping North Carolina recover from Hurricane Floyd, its most costly natural disaster ever. Agents are true heroes, helping with emergency management and going door-to-door to provide research-based information to help flood victims recover.

As prices and demand for some of North Carolina’s leading crops fall, Extension and its research partners work together to develop new agricultural crops, markets and enterprises. The Specialty Crops Program steers growers away from potential failures and toward high-value alternatives that bring in millions of dollars annually.

4-H celebrates its centennial.