Those of us who’ve been involved with agriculture for a quarter-century or more can only marvel at changes that have transformed farming from an enterprise centered mainly on physical labor and crude implements to one that is increasingly equipment/technology/information-based.

In this evolutionary process, the Cooperative Extension Service, the agency that was for decades the bedrock source of information and advice for production agriculture, has seen its role change as farmers have become more reliant on consultant services, marketing services, and immediate access to information via the Internet.

In a paper a while back in the Journal of Extension, Andy Londo, Extension professor, and Ben West, associate Extension professor, both at Mississippi State University, and David Drake, assistant professor, University of Wisconsin, pose the question: “Extension: A Modern-Day Pony Express?”

The organization, they contend, “now faces the same problem that threatened and ultimately led to the demise of the Pony Express — survival in changing times.

“The Pony Express was made irrelevant by revolutions in society and disappeared into American history. American society has undergone many revolutions since Extension’s creation, and we argue that the organization simply has not kept pace … (and) is dangerously close to also becoming irrelevant.”

Extension’s survival, they say, will require “bold and visionary leadership that addresses Extension’s niche and mission, funding challenges, marketing strategies, and rigor of its programs.”

America is much different than in the early and mid-1990s when Extension was at its zenith, the authors note. Now, less than 2 percent of the labor force is employed on farms and educational levels have risen dramatically. But, “despite these trends … Extension at most land grant universities expends much of its effort on traditional agricultural education.

“The farming professional doesn’t need the basic level of agricultural training that Extension has traditionally provided. Many farmers have formal training in agricultural science and also have access to other sources — Internet, industry consultants, and other state/federal agencies for reliable information.

“The traditional, basic agricultural education provided by the Extension system is increasingly irrelevant and ignored, causing a decline in the philosophical and financial support for Extension at local, state, and federal levels.

“Like the Pony Express, which could not adapt to change … Extension is now potentially facing the same fate, and indeed others have similarly questioned whether Extension will long survive.”

But, the authors say, “This fate is not sealed. The basic concept of Extension — using objective, research-based information to help the public — is of greater importance now than ever.”

To insure its survival, they say Extension must (1) redefine its niche, finding ways to serve traditional partners while exploring new horizons, (2) develop relevant programs and aggressively market them to the appropriate clientele (“Extension today is a well-kept secret”); (3) employ rigorous communication and education strategies, and (4) use financial creativity and leveraging to meet challenges of diminished state/federal funding.

e-mail: hbrandon@farmpress.com