Long before fiber-optic cables connected homes to the information grid, extension agents formed a different kind of World Wide Web, one that relies on counties in the same way that your home relies on an Internet router.
All 50 states have extension services, thanks to the 1914 Smith-Lever Act, which required land-grant universities to create outreach programs that offer practical educational enrichment to anyone who wants it. Counties became the main government partner to help fund and deliver these services, and many local extension offices were housed in county buildings.
Texas' claim to fame in extension history is a notable one. In 1906, Smith County corn farmer W.C. Stallings became the first county agent in the U.S. during a time when Texans were desperate to find a solution to cotton-destroying boll weevils. Nearby Kaufman County had established the country's first demonstration farm in 1903 to develop practices to address pests, but it wasn't until Smith County hired Stallings that the idea of a county extension agent came to fruition.
And the experiment paid off. Within a year, corn crop yields had tripled. Two years later, Stallings started one of the state's first corn clubs for boys, a predecessor to the modern 4-H.
With 900 agents and offices in 250 counties, Texas AgriLife Extension is the largest extension service in the country, recording about 24 million teaching contacts each year on subjects including soil science, pest management, nutrition and backyard chickens.
Texas has two land-grant universities — Texas A&M and Prairie View A&M — and both launched extension services in 1915, the latter serving Black Texans who were excluded from the original Texas Extension Service. After the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the extension services integrated, and they continue to work closely but are separately funded.
From the beginning, extension services were funded at the federal, state and county level, with counties picking up 20% to 40% of the costs. Texas AgriLife Extension has an operating budget of $170 million, which includes $37 million of county money that stays in the county, according to Jeff Ripley, associate director for county operations for AgriLife Extension.
"County agents and specialists are the heart and soul of our agency. Not only are they members of the specific communities they serve, but they act as the face for our agency," he said. "We know Texans are not one-size-fits-all, so our support should not be one-size-fits-all either."
Burnet County Judge James Oakley, a former county commissioner, said those in-person relationships are what make the extension service relevant in counties like his, which recently turned an old elementary school building into a new extension office.
"Extension agents fill a void that help us carry on our traditional lifestyle," Oakley said. "We have a lot of people moving to the area, and extension programs are our core education program beyond public schools. It is getting back to what public schools don't teach. They also give people, especially kids, a way to network with other like-minded folks."
Historically, extension agents and specialists were the information technology providers of their day, teaching classes, writing pamphlets and hosting programs about agriculture, engineering, homemaking and science. Their work was aimed at everyone, from youths involved in 4-H programs to adults who sign up for the extension service's popular Master Gardener program.
Three years ago, Jeffrey Raska, a program assistant in Dallas County, and a team of Master Gardener volunteers built raised garden beds on a piece of county-owned land that formerly housed bridge and road equipment.
In the first year, they grew more than two tons of food, most of which went to a kitchen that provides meals for people who are homeless. "We turned 11 acres in the center of Garland in eastern Dallas County into a place that helps fight food insecurity," he said. "It's not going to solve that problem, but every little bit helps."
This little plot of land is now where about 25 extension projects take place, serving 31 municipalities in the area. Raska remembers when they first moved on site and the 4-H classes were taking place in the garage. "You teach where you can in extension," he said.
The entire farm is built on top of asphalt, and Raska said that it can be a model for other communities that want to add gardening programs but think they don't have access to the right kind of land. They now have seven demonstration gardens and a small vineyard with 80 grapevines, and as they gather research about which techniques and varieties do well, they share that information with Texas A&M, which can share it with others in the network.
AgriLife pays his salary, but the garden program has to remain self-funding, so Raska uses that as an opportunity to teach classes about making value-added products, such as jam, which they can sell at a local market.
"Extension people are people who want to make a difference," he said. "We are a service organization, and every project we do has to have a service component, but if you're going to do this work and serve the community, you have to serve with an attitude of grace. Ask folks what they want to grow and make them feel like they are part of this."
One of the most popular programs is 4-H, which predates the extension service and reaches more than 600,000 Texas youths each year. In 1908, Jacksboro resident Tom Marks started the state's first 4-H group. The Jack County Museum is housed in his former home and honors the history of these youth education programs in Texas.
Even though the agency's roots are in agriculture, Texas demographics have become more urban, so the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service has adapted by adding programs that cater to an increasingly diverse and digital society. Today's outreach programs might look like a robotics project for a local 4-H group or a podcast, such as the one about Texas agriculture law from Panhandle-based extension specialist Tiffany Lashmet.
In some ways, extension services are competing with YouTubers, TikTokers and other information providers, but extension still has something that few other content creators can boast: the backing of scientists and researchers within the A&M system, whose expertise is what makes the agency's information so reliable.
Texas A&M AgriLife Extension is rolling out a new website in May that will make it easier for people to find the resources on a single, integrated platform, but officials say the push to build a better online platform isn't a replacement for in-person extension work.
More than 86,000 Texans volunteer each year at many of these in-person programs, including Master Gardener, Master Naturalist and Master Wellness programs.
Harris County extension agent Sonja Stueart-Davis, who has spent 25 years in health and community education, worked as a 4-H agent for many years before transitioning to family and community health, where she now teaches classes on diabetes, high blood pressure and other chronic diseases.
"We are fighting to let people know that we are here and part of the community," Stueart-Davis said. "I see people in their first class with a look of despair on their faces. By the second or third class, the lightbulb comes on and they get excited about what they are learning. These research- and evidence-based programs are making a difference in the health and wellness of individuals."
Stueart-Davis said extension outreach is critical in communities of color, which have typically been underserved by outreach programs in the past. "We have to make those connections and go where people are," including churches and community centers, she said. She's still in touch with people who attended her 4-H camp when they were children.
"It takes a special person to come with a humble spirit and find ways to help."