… around the beginning of the twentieth century, a movement formed that called for a system of extension work to be put in place, to bring research from the land-grant schools to local farm communities. Members of the extension movement argued that a system of extension advisors stationed in local farming communities could bring improved methods of agriculture to rural populations, thereby fulfilling the land-grant mission. In 1914 the federal Smith-Lever Act was passed, providing funds for each land-grant university to establish its own system of extension work. The program was named Cooperative Extension because funding for the advisors came from the federal, state, and county levels of government. After a rapid expansion of the program during World War I, most counties in the United States had a Cooperative Extension advisor, affiliated with each state’s land-grant university and charged with promoting the latest methods and technologies for making local agriculture more productive.
Cooperative Extension work is an ideal case for studying the interface of social and material repair because advisors are supposed to intervene directly in the ecology of place, practice, and power found in their local communities. This aspect of Cooperative Extension work brings to mind Michel Foucault’s extensive work on the ties between power, knowledge, and the modern state.
As depicted in figure 1.2, the knowledge and expertise of advisors (and the university) has influence on other state actors and the farm industry, but these same groups also shape the work of advisors through their own sources of influence, including wealth and political regulation. In the face of constant change and crisis from many sources, Cooperative Extension has served to stabilize and reproduce the ecology of power in industrial agriculture, repairing elements on every level of this ecology. At the same time, the story of Cooperative Extension is just as much about how local actors resist and reshape state institutions. As one example, during a series of labor crises brought on by the onset of World War II, the farm industry demanded that Cooperative Extension advisors organize and ration the use of diverse sources of farm labor, essentially acting as a kind of labor contractor (see chapter 4). Farm advisors cross many boundaries in the course of their work, but the common thread among this work is repair; Cooperative Extension is an institution of repair. Its mandate to improve the productivity of agricultural communities has often served to preserve and maintain the power structure of the local social and material ecology.