‘One Great Idea’: Cornell Cooperative Extension at 100
In early winter of 1911, John H. Barron of the Cornell Class of 1906, accepted a job offer to become the first Farm Bureau agent.
Byron Gitchell, secretary of the Binghamton Chamber of Commerce, had proposed the establishment of a bureau within the Chamber to “extend to farmers the same opportunities now enjoyed by the business men of the city.” The Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western Railroad joined together with the Broome County Chamber of Commerce, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the State College of Agriculture (now CALS) to finance the establishment of an office to work with farmers. The college was unable to contribute financially but would “give advice and encouragement.”
A farm agent would be employed to conduct demonstrations and educate farmers individually and in groups about the best methods, crops, livestock, labor, tools, and other equipment.
When Barron began work on March 20, 1911, he was assigned a horse and buggy and set out to establish himself as “one of the most popular and effective extension specialists ever to represent Cornell University.” One hundred years ago, the “One Great Idea” that is Cornell Cooperative Extension was born.
The new Farm Bureau was initially met with some skepticism. Farmers openly wondered if the railroads were interested only in making money for themselves, or if the government was simply trying to raise production instead of securing higher prices for what was already produced. It soon became clear that Barron, who had a college education and was raised on a farm, had the credibility to engage the agricultural community. It also became clear to Agent Barron that he could not meet the challenges before him on his own and he needed a network of local people to disseminate information. So a board of directors was formed, and what would become an impressive statewide and national network took root.
What started in Broome was replicated rapidly in neighboring counties, and within a short period, Extension organizations were formed in most New York counties. Extension and the Farm Bureau functioned as the same organization until the early 1950s, when Congress mandated that the function of lobbying for specific legislation to benefit individual producers should not be a function of a government-sponsored program. New York Farm Bureau and Cooperative Extension went through a thoughtful separation at that time and they have operated as collegial but independent organizations ever since, with Farm Bureau acting specifically in the interests of its members and Extension taking on a broader educational role.
The notion of a strong, credible educator with close ties to Cornell is alive and well in Cornell Cooperative Extension’s work today. Local Extension workers have a deep understanding of the communities they serve, which no doubt would have impressed John Barron in his day. Now in its 100th year, Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) provides access to New York’s land grant university through an extensive network of field-based staff and nearly 40,000 volunteers.
Several of the centennial activities during 2011 prepare CCE to take advantage of new opportunities created by changes in funding at the national and local levels. While increasing the sustainability of agriculture and the world food supply continue to be major priorities, also taking the stage as central priorities are renewable energy, effects of climate change, nutrition and health, and family and community development. The idea that science can be applied to everyday problems—the “One Great Idea”—draws people together and will underlie Cornell Cooperative Extension’s response to the challenges of a new century.