For city and suburban folks, the only county agent they may have ever seen was hapless Hank Kimball on the old TV comedy “Green Acres.” But, for countless millions with rural backgrounds, that agent was part of a system that had a big impact on their lives.
And still does.
The Cooperative Extension Service — the national network of county agents and other agricultural and home economics experts — turned 100 years old this year, and it continues to be the link that get research information from universities to those who produce America’s food, said Bill Richardson, Louisiana Cooperative Extension director and LSU vice president for agriculture.
“The need hasn’t gone away,” Richardson said. “The methods are changing because of technology, but the need to get technology out of the lab out to the person that’s using it hasn’t changed.”
“It’s been around for 100 years because people see the value, and the value continues to grow,” said Gina Eubanks, an extension executive on staff at LSU and Southern Universities.
Land grant universities like LSU and Southern had been doing research for a quarter-century before cooperative extension was created on May 8, 1914, with the signing of the Smith Lever Act.
Earlier, agricultural leaders like Seaman Knapp, who promoted rice as an alternative crop for Louisiana farmers, and George Washington Carver, who taught the merits of peanuts and sweet potatoes, shared what was then groundbreaking information, but there was no infrastructure to spread such news to every farmer.
That changed in a big way, creating an impact on American agriculture that may be impossible to quantify.
“Part of the reason why we’re able to feed ourselves is what we do in research and extension in the United State,” Richardson said. “It’s like nowhere else. I’ve been to Ukraine. They can feed all of western Europe. The land is there. The resources are there. What they don’t have is an agricultural production system. If they ever become more Americanized, they will feed all of Europe.”
In addition to bringing information to farmers, Richardson said county agents continue to serve the another vital function — making researchers aware of diseases and other agricultural problems as they arise.
“We always think of technology transfer being a one-way street, but it’s a two-way street,” he said.
Cooperative extension, however, was about more than just farming advice. Home demonstration agents would visit communities and individual homes showing how to cook, can, sew and improve family sanitation. Today, they’re known as family consumer science agents, and their primary focus in providing nutrition image to combat the obesity epidemic, Eubanks said.
For example, next month in the West Carroll Parish town of Oak Grove, agents will put on a health fair and promote gardening and walking trails, Eubanks said.
Cooperative extension promotes gardening, in part through its work with the Master Gardener program, and communicates through group meetings and social media than through home visits.
Then, there is 4-H, the youth program that has become much more than livestock shows. Today’s 4-H has programs in environmental science, leadership skills training and healthy living education.
“What is hard to quantify is the involvement of 4-H: How many kids’ lives have we saved by 4-H because they did something positive instead of negative?” Richardson said.
Eubanks, who is on staff both at LSU and Southern University, said the two university agriculture departments have cooperated well throughout her tenure.
Cooperation, of course, is the name of the game.
That spirit, Richardson said, is why cooperative extension remains so relevant in an era in which information is readily available.
“Who do you trust? That trust factor is built one-on-one with that agent and client. They can get the information to them a lot quicker, but who do you trust? I use the internet a lot, and there’s a lot of crap on it,” he said. “That relationship is very critical.”