This spring, my family had the honor of celebrating the 95th birthday of my grandfather, Frank Deeds. Much has been said about his generation that has seen agriculture go from horses, to horsepower to satellite guidance in one amazing lifetime. He endured the Great Depression and survived service to our country in World War II. He farmed, taught agriculture and served as an FFA advisor for many years. He educated a generation of students, helping them to be better farmers and, more importantly, better people. He worked tirelessly (and successfully) to provide a better life for his children and grandchildren.
With folks like my grandpa and so many others from his generation serving as role models and examples, it should make us all pause for a moment to appreciate what we have today and how we got here. Grandpa’s generation changed the world in ways that were previously unimaginable, even though we may not always take notice.
This spring was also another important world-changing birthday celebration for Ohio State University Extension that has been around for a century. Five years before my Grandpa was born, OSU Extension got its official start and has been there every step of the way in the massive changes that have since taken place in agriculture. Grandpa’s generation and Extension worked hand-in-hand to develop and implement better ways for Ohio to feed and serve the world.
Though things have changed dramatically in the last century, Extension continues to fill a vital role in agriculture and society, whether it is noticed or not.
“I firmly believe Extension is needed more today than it was in 1914,” said Keith Smith, director of OSU Extension and associate vice president for agricultural administration at Ohio State University. “With so much information that’s hitting the public these days and coming at us so fast, people have to ask: What’s true? What can I rely on? What’s going to be best for me?
“People need an unbiased, research-based foundational source that will help them make informed decisions about what’s best for them, their family and their community. That’s where Extension comes in.”
On May 8, 1914, the Smith-Lever Act established the Cooperative Extension Service, but the roots of Extension began more than five decades earlier. When Congress passed the 1862 Morrill Act, it created land-grant universities in each state to provide practical education in agricultural and mechanical fields. And 25 years after that, Congress passed the Hatch Act, establishing funding for land-grant universities to operate agricultural experiment stations and conduct research.
In the early days, Ohio Agricultural Extension trains traveled the state carrying agricultural exhibits and offering presentations on modern farm practices. In 1911 alone, 16 trains made 418 stops and reached more than 45,000 Ohioans. Field days and fair exhibits were important tools for information dissemination, even in Extension’s early days. From “Recollections of my early days at the Ohio Agricultural Experiment Station,” long-time Extension employee A.E. Perkins recalls some of the early Extension field days in Wooster in the 1920s.*
“In my early years here, there was but one field day regularly held, this was wheatfield day held just about the time wheat was beginning to turn each year. Crowds were necessarily small for most people in attendance either drove horses or came on the train or electric line. It was almost necessary for anyone coming from a distance to come the preceding day and spend the night in Wooster. Director Thorne’s favorite method of showing his plot experiments was to mount his horse and speak from the saddle to the visitors who walked from station to station…Possibly the interest in wheatfield day, combined with the greater ease of travel by automobile which became common about this time, led to the adoption of special days for the presentation of the work of the various departments rather than so large a dependence on fair exhibits. In line with this policy, Dairy Day was instituted in 1928 in cooperation with the Ohio Dairymen’s Association and the Agricultural Extension Service.”
From then on, the use of field days as a dissemination tool expanded significantly, reaching out to the agricultural community around Ohio. In a 2007 interview, former Extension dairy specialist John Staubus recalls his experiences in reaching out to the farmers of Ohio.*
“We tried to organize these things by checking with the county Extension agents to see what problems they wanted to solve in their counties. We called them silage institutes and dairy institutes. One of the first things we worked with was the alfalfa weevil that was coming through the state from south to north. We moved up through the state trying to stay ahead of the weevil so the farmers would know how to fight weevils when they showed up. In these instances, we had a full day program with four Extension specialists — a nutritionist, an entomologist, an agronomist and a veterinarian. Occasionally a dairy ‘tech’ person would be on the program or an economist talking about marketing or a forage specialist talking about agronomy. We built the schools to suit the counties. We were in each group of counties for a day and then we’d move to another area of the state. We’d leave on Monday and get back on Friday night.”
Today, in lieu of train travel and horseback presentations, Extension personnel provide information not only in person but through county and statewide websites, YouTube videos, Facebook, Twitter and blog posts, e-newsletters, e-challenges and many other methods. Even if you don’t think about it every day, just take a few minutes to reflect upon how Extension has shaped your life and your farm over the last century. It undoubtedly has.
Talking with my grandpa and others from his generation has taught me that we have it pretty easy today compared to life on a farm (or anywhere) a century ago. Our incredible (and unprecedented in the history of the world) lifestyles today did not just happen. The bounty that we enjoy, and often take for granted, is based on a society that was built by the sweat and sacrifice of those who toiled before us. These big number birthday celebrations that we get the chance to celebrate are not only about honoring the important roles of those people and entities now, but commemorating the past and their part in shaping it into a better future for all of us.
* The Staubus and Perkins comments are excerpts from the Extension portion of The History of the Department of Animal Sciences at The Ohio State University.