The Alabama Extension Service was formed in 1915 to teach practical and technical skills to farmers and to generally improve the lives of rural residents. Now known as the Alabama Cooperative Extension System (ACES), the organization operates a network of offices in each county through Alabama's two historic land-grant institutions, Alabama A&M University and Auburn University. Tuskegee University, which pioneered much of what is associated with extension programming, is a cooperative partner within this system.
The concept of extension work traces its roots to the Morrill Act of 1862, which granted each state 30,000 acres of public land for each member of its congressional delegation. The lands were sold and the funds were used to endow colleges to teach agriculture and other practical arts. The act made possible the establishment of Auburn University (then known as the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Alabama), which became the first headquarters of the statewide Alabama extension program. The subsequent Morrill Act of 1890 secured continuing funding for land-grant schools and enabled the Huntsville Normal School, initially a teacher-training institution for African Americans, becoming the state's second land-grant institution, Alabama A&M University, in 1891.
Tuskegee University (then Tuskegee Institute) had begun its own extension effort as far back as the 1890s. Tuskegee president Booker T. Washington was aware of the acute need for educational outreach on behalf of black farmers and organized the first Farmers Conference at Tuskegee in 1892. Though well attended, the absence of many of the most disadvantaged farmers sparked a search for more effective outreach methods. Eventually, Washington and Tuskegee researcher George Washington Carver conceived and designed a "demonstration wagon" that was an early prototype of extension work and the initial incarnation of the Tuskegee Institute Movable School. The wagon later became known as the Jesup Wagon, named for Washington friend and benefactor Morris Jesup. The Movable School was one of first examples of how educators would teach new practices to farmers and homemakers through innovation and improvisation.
In 1906, Tuskegee began to receive extension funds from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and, with Washington's recommendation, appointed Thomas M. Campbell as the first African American extension agent and placed him in charge of the Jesup Wagon. Thereafter, so-called "Negro extension work" expanded rapidly, encompassing some 40 different activities, including girls and boys clubs, mothers clubs, conferences, fairs, and various types of demonstration activities. The growth and diversification of black outreach work prompted Washington to organize in 1910 a formal Extension Department headed by Campbell to coordinate these efforts in Alabama and neighboring states. With his salary funded by several sources, Campbell is largely recognized as the prototype for the extension agent model that emerged following passage of the Smith-Lever Act in 1914. Although Tuskegee was at the forefront of extension work, the Extension Service would remain segregated until after the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Auburn professor and future Extension Department director Luther Duncan, like his Tuskegee counterparts, also improvised, organizing "corn clubs" in 1909. These clubs were early forerunners of the 4-H clubs later developed by the USDA to involve youth in farming. Their purpose was to instruct school-age boys in advanced scientific farming methods so that they would pass along these practices to their fathers. Likewise, "tomato clubs" were organized so that girls could pass along new canning and other food-preservation techniques to their mothers.
During this period, nearly 40 extension educators devoted to farm demonstration work were supported by USDA funds, typically in combination with county funds to work in about as many counties. By 1911, their outreach efforts were enhanced by the hiring of part-time home demonstration agents, who assisted with the tomato canning clubs that had been organized throughout the state.
Extension Work Formalized
The extension model was formalized by the 1914 Smith-Lever Act, which provided federal matching funds to states to establish a network of county agent offices. The act also stipulated that all extension work associated with USDA would be carried out through land-grant schools. These early farm demonstration agents typically operated out of their homes and with little assistance or equipment. Renowned agricultural researcher John Frederick Duggar, then director of the Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station at Auburn, was appointed the first director of the Alabama Agricultural Extension Service (AAES) in 1914, filling that role until 1920. Although he was actively involved in setting up programming after the passage of Smith-Lever, his experiment station responsibilities prevented him from devoting his full attention to this emerging effort.
The destruction caused by the boll weevil during the 1910s prompted extension officials to focus on improving the poor economic prospects of farmers, many of whom raised cotton. Agents emphasized crop diversification and rotation, demonstrating to farmers the merits of complementing cotton with other crops, notably peanuts, and also engaging in hog and poultry production. The "Old Rotation" cotton experiment field at Auburn University was an important part of this effort and is one of the oldest continuously operating agricultural experiments in the world. Extension educators and land-grant university researchers together also developed measures to combat the boll weevil, which in turn spawned other developments, including the rise of entomological research, extension work throughout the South, and a host of important advances in agricultural science. In addition, their efforts culminated in the federal Boll Weevil Eradication Program. It effectively eliminated boll weevils as a significant cotton pest and also led to significantly lower insecticide use and important changes in the way cotton is affected by insects.
In the years immediately following passage of Smith-Lever, a common concern among extension agents was the lack of regular research-based information from Auburn University. This deficiency improved as the extension administration began hiring more state-level subject matter specialists and other programming staff. Over time, as funding permitted, the extension service assisted with more farm-related concerns, including dairying, livestock production, agronomy, horticulture, marketing, and plant and animal disease prevention and management.
The nation's involvement in World War I proved to be another significant milestone for AAES. Personnel in Alabama and throughout the United States were enlisted to help the federal government carry out several domestic objectives associated with the war, including assisting farmers and homemakers with food production and conservation efforts, promoting the war bonds effort, addressing farm labor shortages, and supporting other war-related undertakings. Thomas Campbell and the Tuskegee-based extension staff developed the innovative "Uncle Sam's Saturday Service League," which encouraged workers to increase American productivity by working on Saturday; the program garnered nationwide attention.
Luther Duncan's appointment as AAES director in 1920 marked a milestone in the development of the organization's programming, especially in guiding it toward greater control by Auburn University. Duncan was instrumental in developing a group of specialists with statewide responsibilities who were trained to provide field agents with relevant, up-to-date, research-based knowledge generated by Auburn, Alabama A&M, and Tuskegee researchers. Duncan also oversaw efforts to use new forms of technology for outreach, notably purchasing a radio station to broadcast educational information to the state's farmers and homemakers. During his tenure, however, Duncan and the Extension Service would become the target of criticism by groups such as the Alabama Farmers Union (AFU) for working too closely with the Alabama Farm Bureau Federation (which Duncan helped organize in 1921) at the expense of the AFU. In addition, the Farm Bureau soon became an active political tool of agricultural interests, and Duncan was accused of using county extension agents, working in close coordination with the Farm Bureau and the Cattlemen's Association, to manipulate Alabama agricultural policy.
Duncan resigned as extension director in 1937 to serve as president of Auburn University and was succeeded by Posey Oliver "P. O." Davis, who had been an editor for AAES. He enhanced its print and broadcast presence throughout the state, working closely with the editors of Alabama newspapers and with farm and home publications as extension educational broadcasts aired six days a week on radio stations throughout Alabama.
Following the outbreak of World War II, Alabama farm agents again assisted efforts to increase farm output to support the war effort and to help alleviate the acute manpower shortfalls created by mass enlistment and conscription. Additionally, home demonstration agents developed programs to address many of the domestic challenges commonly associated with wartime, such as food and other commodity shortages. For example, AAES produced many publications and programs aimed at mitigating the shortages that arose out of rationing associated with the war effort. One AAES publication discussed techniques consumers could use to get more wear out of their shoes. Another urged Alabama consumers to aid the war effort by saving money while also ensuring that they would have funds available to purchase commodities after the war. Still another discussed the ways that homemakers could make home life more bearable while loved ones were away serving their country.
Davis emerged as a national advocate for farming and extension work in the 1940s and 1950s. Upon his retirement in 1959, Davis was succeeded by Auburn alumnus E. T. York, who subsequently served as administrator for the federal Cooperative Extension Service (now the Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service) in Washington, D.C., the youngest individual to serve in that position.
In 1995, Alabama's extension service became the nation's first unified effort by combining the programs of Alabama A&M and Auburn University. The merger of these two extension programs stemmed from the landmark federal court ruling, Knight v. Alabama, filed in 1981 and settled in 1995, in which plaintiffs contended that segregation persisted in Alabama's university system and claimed that the Experiment Station and extension programs at Auburn enjoyed a disproportionate share of state funding compared with their counterparts at Alabama A&M. Among the numerous measures aimed at resolving this issue, Judge Harold Murphy decreed that the extension programs at Alabama A&M and Auburn would be combined into a new entity called the Alabama Cooperative Extension System (ACES), which would serve as the statewide outreach organization for both institutions. Tuskegee University would continue to operate its own, separate extension program, although it was encouraged to function as a cooperative partner with the system, coordinating its programs with ACES efforts.
In 2004, the system underwent its most thorough reorganization. ACES transformed itself from primarily a county-focused model to one in which regional agents specializing in one of 14 different areas deliver programs across regional and disciplinary lines. Despite the growing emphasis on regional agents, ACES, in keeping with its longstanding tradition of serving Alabamians at the grassroots level, continues to operate offices in all 67 counties. These are headed by coordinators who work with regional agents and other extension staff to deliver programs within their counties.
In 2010, ACES performed a periodic evaluation that consisted of a statewide survey of its grassroots stakeholders, such as representatives of partnering agencies, local citizens representing diverse socio-economic and cultural groups, potential new client groups, and community partners. Using this feedback, officials drafted a five-year plan and identified six program initiatives that reflect the changing conditions in the state: health and wellness, workforce development, a safe and secure food supply, financial literacy, sustainable agriculture and forestry systems, and environmental stewardship. The organization has begun taking advantage of the Internet and social media to enable greater numbers of people to find information without the active involvement of extension educators and other intermediaries. Extension agents and specialists also are altering their outreach methods, employing various forms of social media to keep their clients updated and informed.
ACES employs approximately 900 full- and part-time staff in all 67 Alabama counties. It operated off a total budget of slightly
more than $52 million in Fiscal Year 2012. This amount includes appropriations from federal, state, and county governments,
which account for more than 84 percent of funding, and additional income from contracts and grants and other sources.
Mayberry, B. D. The Role of Tuskegee University in the Origin, Growth and Development of the Negro Cooperative Extension System 1881–1890. Tuskegee, Ala.: Tuskegee University Cooperative Extension Program, 1989.
Smith, Ronald H. History of the Boll Weevil in Alabama. Bulletin 670. Auburn, Ala.: Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station, 2007.
Rasmussen, Wayne D. Taking the University to the People: Seventy-five Years of Cooperative Extension. Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University Press, 1989.
Yeager, Joe, and Gene Stevenson. Inside Ag Hill: The People and Events that Shaped Auburn's Agricultural History from 1872 through 1999. Auburn, Ala.: Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station, 2000.
Alabama Cooperative Extension System
Published August 9, 2012
Last updated August 15, 2013