Cooperative Extension celebrates 100 years

Published 10:26 am Wednesday, May 7, 2014


On May 8, 1914, a very transformative event was taking place with the passage of the Smith-Lever Act which created the Cooperative Extension System, for which we are now celebrating this 100-year anniversary.

However, to fully appreciate the events that brought about the creation of Cooperative Extension, events from even earlier days must be understood. The first being the creation of land grant institutions by the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890. In Virginia’s case this lead to the creation of the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College (now Virginia Tech) and added to the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (now Hampton University). The mission of the Morrill Acts was to teach agriculture, military tactics and the mechanical arts as well as classical studies to members of the working classes. Prior to this time formal schooling at the collegiate level was an exercise mainly for the well-to-do. This was the beginning of the recognition that the study and development of agriculture was essential to the prosperity of society.At the federal level, the dawning of Extension was attributed to work initiated by Seaman A. Knapp. After serving as the second president of Iowa Agricultural College from 1883-1884, Knapp went on to establish demonstration farms in Louisiana, and then in Terrell, Texas, in 1903. It was then that Agriculture Secretary James Wilson allocated $40,000 toward Dr. Knapp’s farm demonstration work directed at helping farmers diversify their cropping in the boll weevil area of the South.

In 1906, Joseph D. Eggleston Jr., while serving as state superintendent of public instruction at Virginia Tech, invited Dr. Knapp to share his ideas at a meeting held in Richmond, Virginia. This led to the hiring of T.O. Sandy by Knapp in 1907 as Virginia’s first demonstration agent. Soon after F.S. Farrar and Ella Graham Agnew were employed and begun organizing boys “corn clubs” and girls “canning clubs,” respectively. Utilizing improved seed and techniques, the corn clubs soon averaged 65 bushels of corn per acre on farms which had produced only 17 bushels per acre. It wasn’t long after that these techniques were subtly adopted by the parents of these young farmers as the proof was in the pudding and proved and effective means of disseminating information to a skeptical audience. These positions were funded by the General Education Board established by John D. Rockefeller. Across the South, the General Education Board invested $925,750 in farm demonstration work between 1906 and 1914. Likewise, Virginia recognized the need for agricultural education at the local level to prepare students to move up to the collegiate level of the land grant institutions. Thus, in 1908, 11 Congressional district agricultural schools were state and locally funded and established in Virginia at: Hampton, Burkeville, Elk Creek, Middletown, Manassas, Appomattox, Chatham, Driver, Chester and Lebanon. These schools had as their primary mission to teach secondary students agriculture and home economics.

These schools typically had a farm or experiment station attached as well as a dormitory as travel took much longer in those days. This allowed students from across the districts to have a place to board while they attended. The principal at each of these district agricultural schools supervised home projects, organized boys’ and girls’ clubs, hosted farmers’ institutes, answered farmer and landowner questions, conducted farm experiments and farm demonstrations, and provided educational programs at schools and community meetings around the state.

In 1914, Secretary of Agriculture James Houston, a former president of a land-grant college brought together land-grant colleges and the USDA to agree on the arrangements of the Smith-Lever Act. Crafted by U.S. Sen. Hoke Smith of Georgia and U.S. Rep. A.F. Lever of South Carolina, the Smith-Lever Act solidified the “vocational, agricultural and home demonstration programs in rural America” by bringing the research-based knowledge of the land-grant universities to people where they live and work. When the Smith-Lever Act was passed in 1914, the demonstration work in Virginia expanded to 60 agents serving 52 counties. Administration of the program became the responsibility of the dean of the College of Agriculture at Virginia Tech.

The General Education Board also recognized the need of improving living standards among the African-American farmers as well. African-American agents were employed to carry this information to African-American farmers. In 1906, J.B. Pierce of Hampton Institute began work in Gloucester County. And Lizzie A. Jenkins was tasked in 1913, with organizing canning clubs among African-American girls in southeast Virginia. Then in 1920, the land- grant program for African-Americans was moved from Hampton Institute to Virginia Normal and Industrial Institute which eventually became known as Virginia State University.

Youth development was a large part of the goal from the start and 4-H has become the most widely known program of its kind. In 1911, O.H. Benson introduced the four H’s that stood for head, heart, hands, and hustle (which at the time meant working with vigor) this was later changed to health. Since that time 4-H has reached millions of youth and helped prepare them for responsible adulthood.

There is hardly any way to enumerate the number and variety of topics and programs that Extension has utilized over the years to improve the quality of life for Virginia’s Citizens, but here are a few highlights.

• agricultural engineering for land drainage at turn of century

• mattress stuffing in the 1920s

• chicken culling demonstrations which increased egg production by 50 percent

• genetics and animal quality improvement

• many animal disease vaccination programs saving millions of dollars of livestock

• rural electrification – from 500 Virginia farms in 1924 to 146,617 or 84.7 percent by 1949

• soil sampling and nutrient recommendations

• diagnostic laboratories and monitoring programs to quickly identify pests, pathogens, toxins, and nutrient levels

• sewing/crafting/performance/public speaking clubs

• food safety and preservation

• nutrition and financial education

• pesticide safety education

• science education and robotics.

Over the past century, Cooperative Extension has adapted to a changing conditions, addressing agriculture, nutrition, family, environment, development, and 4-H youth development needs in both rural and urban localities. The future continues to provide challenges in the face of rapidly rising global food demand supplied by an ever diminishing rural production population. Information technologies and delivery systems are also now at everyone’s fingertips with high-speed wireless internet. Virginia Cooperative Extension will continue to innovate and deliver the vital research-based information, training, and services through agents, partners, and volunteers, at 107 extension offices, six 4-H educational centers, and 12 Agricultural Research and Extension Centers (ARECs) to improve the quality of life for Virginia’s citizens well into the future.

NEIL CLARK is an extension agent, serving as Southeast District Forestry agent and Southampton Unit coordinator. He can be reached at