The Original Role for the Federal Government
When the nationwide extension system originally began to evolve, it did so without federal assistance. Some states started extension departments at the land grant colleges and some counties hired extension agents. A national initiative was needed, however; first to put the system in place in large states with small populations (like Montana) and, second to ensure a coordinated, effective system with a nationwide impact. The effort to develop a national system was given tremendous impetus by President Theodore Roosevelt's Commission on Country Life, which included Liberty Hyde Bailey, a founder of Cornell's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and nationally recognized for his research in horticulture and botany and his commitment to making research results available to farmers. The commission recommended (Rasmussen, 1989: p. 44) that
each state college of agriculture should organize as soon as practical a complete department of college extension. The work should include such forms of extension teaching as lectures, bulletins, reading courses, correspondence courses, demonstration, and other means of reaching the people at home and on their farms. It should be designed to forward not only the business of agriculture, but sanitation, education, home making, and all interests of country life.
As it took its final form in Smith-Lever legislation, the uniqueness of the nationwide extension system was its coordinated partnership among county, state, and federal governments (therefore ''cooperative" extension). The Smith-Lever Act provided a systemwide purpose for extension: "to aid in diffusing among the people of the United States useful and practical information on subjects relating to agriculture and home economics and to encourage the application of the same."
The federal government's initial role was to help put the cooperative extension system in place, to assure nationwide effectiveness, and to identify national needs. Over the decades, as the extension system matured, the federal role in financing extension decreased significantly in relation to funding by states and localities (National Research Council, 1995a). Total federal funds for extension were $439 million in FY 1995. This represented 29 percent of all cooperative extension funding from state, local (including county and private), and federal sources, down from 42 percent 20 years ago (National Research Council, 1995a). In some states the federal share is significantly smaller, although there is a large variation. State and local government funds are more important today than in the past. Private sources of funds, including corporate support, grants by nonprofit organizations, and fees for service, are also increasing in importance at the same time that there is a growing role for the private sector in providing extension services. Congressional stipulations governing the use of federal extension dollars have also increased, particularly to reorient extension toward the interests of urban and other nontraditional extension clientele.
If extension is a bottom-up system responsive to local needs and delivering local benefits, why should the federal government be involved? Certainly one of the main original reasons—that big states with small populations needed help in getting extension