Out of the Lab, On to the Farm

TFP, as measured at the country, regional or global level, increases when there is widespread adoption of an innovative technology or practice.

Agricultural extension systems provide the link between public research and farmers, enabling them to understand and adopt innovation to benefit their business operations, the natural resources they manage, their families and the communities they live in.

At the Virginia Tech Shenandoah Valley Agricultural Research and Extension Center, technician Marnie Caldwell (left) and farm manager Dave Cuddy record measurements used to estimate forage yields in cow-calf grazing paddocks. USDA/ARS. Photo by Peggy Greb.

In the United States, the cooperative extension program was established by the Smith-Lever Act in 1914 and has become a model for many other countries. Working cooperatively, the federal government agencies involved in agricultural research, along with land-grant universities across the country and local county governments, built a solid structure for producing and sharing results and new practices.

These extension systems serve to keep farmers successfully involved in agriculture, providing advice, training, and support for rural entrepreneurship. A recent study demonstrated that since 1985, some 137,000 farmers would have left farming without the specific services of cooperative extension.1

Initially, extension systems were established in the U.S. as a top-down model in which new information, practices and technologies flowed from experts to farmers. But this model has been challenged in recent years by a recession-driven decline in state-level investments for extension.

The twenty-first century needs a fresh, interactive model of partnership for knowledge exchange.

Farmers’ social networks — trusted people in their home, community and business circles — play key roles in helping farmers adopt new information, practices and technologies. When it comes to helping farmers of all sizes and operations adapt to climate change, trusted sources of information combined with practical tools are needed to understand the impacts and opportunities to build resilience at the farm level.

Purdue University launched the Useful to Usable initiative, a regional level, multi-institutional program offering a suite of online tools to help farmers and agricultural advisors manage the increasingly variable weather and climate conditions across much of the Midwest Corn Belt. Farmers access online historical climate data and many other data sources for production and marketing decision-making throughout the growing season, essentially helping farmers climate-prepare their operations.

Cooperative extension agents can engage with social networks and develop tools for farmers that help them adapt to climate change and implement conservation agriculture practices. Digital innovation must also become an essential extension tool to reach remote or new farmers, and to reduce the costs of extension programs.  Webinars can provide excellent educational resources to remote locations. Online tools and apps developed by extension agents and agriculture departments can help more farmers receive information and best practice advisory services.

Agricultural R&D and extension systems in many lower-income countries have not been a priority due to budget constraints and the lack of prioritization. But new approaches and models to extension are emerging and as countries build out their research and extension systems, greater participatory models are evolving to fill the extension gap.

Georgia is linking orchard producers with the information and technologies needed to meet new market demands. Videos on best management practices for orchard management and soil nutrition and training from global extension experts are provided. Credit: Givi Pirtskhalava/World Bank

Working with international development institutions such as the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the private sector and non-governmental organizations, novel approaches to sharing technology and practices are being tested.

In the Republic of Georgia, decades of underinvestment have left farmers ill equipped and unprepared to take advantage of new market opportunities for their agriculture exports to the European Union. Georgia is committed to developing a robust, innovative public sector extension system.

The Georgia Ministry of Agriculture has more than doubled its annual budget with considerable funds for extension and advisory services.



  1. Matt Swayne, “Land Grant University Programs Helped Keep Farmers on the Farm.”  Penn State News Online, April 19, 2016.

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