Extension’s 108th Anniversary

This Sunday is Mother’s Day. It’s also the 108th anniversary of an obscure piece of legislation that might also play an important role in your life.

On May 8th, 1914 President Woodrow Wilson signed into law the Smith-Lever Act, which established a nationwide Agricultural Extension Service. This was a bold idea to create a partnership between the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the land-grant universities in each state to bring practical scientific research and teaching to all citizens, particularly farmers and rural residents.

In the late 19th century, there was widespread concern that the nation’s agriculture was failing to keep pace with our growing population. The principal goal of the extension service was (and still is) to provide farmers with knowledge of technology and advanced agricultural practices, so that they could be more productive and profitable.

Another goal of Extension was to improve living conditions for farm families. At that time, many rural areas were suffering from poor nutrition, economic barriers, and lack of sanitation and electrical power. Many people, particularly youth, were leaving the farm for better opportunities in urban areas.

Florida established its extension service in 1915, operating out of the University of Florida, Florida A & M University, and the Florida State College for Women, with agents in 31 counties. Extension agents in those days traveled to clients by train, foot, or mule team, carrying the latest USDA pamphlets and Experiment Station bulletins with them. Like most government programs, it was met with skepticism. However, Florida extension was built on three major success stories: hog cholera, canning, and youth clubs.

Vaccinating a hog for hog cholera.

Hog cholera was a devastating disease that affected pigs. Extension agriculture agents were trained to administer a serum, saving an estimated 18,000 hogs in the program’s first year. Instruction in home canning, a program developed by Agnes Ellen Harris, not only helped families preserve food in an age before refrigerators, but it also provided nutrition information and a source of revenue for poverty-stricken households. Corn Clubs for boys and Tomato Clubs for girls gave youth hands-on experience in developing their own agriculture operations. These clubs would eventually coalesce under the umbrella of Florida 4-H.

Corn Club boys and their parents, ca. 1916.

In each case, communities soon recognized the usefulness of having an Extension agent or volunteer around to help solve a critical problem.

Building on these early successes, the Florida Cooperative Extension Service has continued to adapt to changing times. It has expanded over the years to provide useful research-based education to residents in both rural and urban communities. Today we have extension offices in each of Florida’s 67 counties as well as the Seminole Indian Reservation. Our programming covers all aspects of life, including agriculture, natural resources, community development, food and nutrition, health, strong families and communities, emergency response and youth development. We no longer travel by train or mule, but bring information directly to you in classrooms, through field days and open houses, online and through social media.

A teaching assistant sets up a Zoom meeting for a remote learning Animal Sciences course.

While things have changed a lot since 1914, our core mission remains the same: To bring useful, practical information to people where they need it, when they need it, to solve problems and improve their quality of life.

Mother’s Day may be the main event on your calendar this weekend, but if you’ve ever talked with a Master Gardener Volunteer at a plant sale, signed up for 4-H summer camp, had an agent visit your business, or watched a YouTube video about how to plant a Florida-Friendly garden, you’ve been touched by Extension, which has been helping Floridians find solutions for their lives for over 100 years.

4H youth learning about science and technology at 4H University.

Learn more about UF/IFAS Extension at https://sfyl.ifas.ufl.edu/

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Posted: May 6, 2022


Category: 4-H & Youth, AGRICULTURE, EVENTS, UF/IFAS Extension, Work & Life
Tags: Florida Cooperative Extension Service, Smith-Lever Act


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