Extension Service to Celebrate Centennial

Nebraska Notebook

Nebraska Farmer promoted Extension's goals in those early years.

Published on: January 16, 2014

About four years ago, in November 2009, Nebraska Farmer published a special issue celebrating the magazine's 150th year of serving Nebraska agriculture. The magazine was first published in October 1859, when it was Nebraska Territory and eight years before the state officially joined the Union.

This year, there's another celebration of a major contributor to Nebraska and the nation—the centennial anniversary of the Smith-Lever Act, passed by Congress and signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson in 1914. It officially created the Cooperative Extension Service.

At the time, the University of Nebraska was already moving forward on the concept of "extension," putting people and resources out to the counties. The 1912 annual report of the Experiment Station (which was created in Nebraska by the Legislature in 1887) said, "The appropriations for Extension work should be greatly increased."

When I think of Extension, Norman Rockwell's painting "County Agent" in the July 1948, issue of Saturday Evening Post comes to mind. Rockwell used real people as models, in this case Herald Rippey, an Extension agent in Jay County, Indiana, advising a young 4-Her on her show calf.

The role of Extension has changed, of course. In Nebraska, agents are now Extension "educators" and instead of generalists advising farmers and their families on a wide range of topics, they now often specialize in certain fields and go beyond their county boundaries in their education roles.

There's an interesting tie with the beginning of Extension in Nebraska and the Nebraska Farmer. Professor C.W. Pugsley, who had been in charge of soil agronomy, was named the first superintendent of Agriculture Extension and Farm Management in 1912, according to our archives. Pugsley then became editor of Nebraska Farmer in 1918, serving three years in that role before moving on to become assistant secretary of agriculture in President Warren Harding's administration. The editor's position opened up then when Samuel McKelvie, Nebraska Farmer publisher and owner, was elected governor in 1918 for the first of two terms.

The first county agent, or "demonstrator" as the position was originally called, was V.S. Culver in Merrick County, according a July 1912 article in the magazine. 

The university needed to get the word out on this new concept of "Extension," and Nebraska Farmer, in its July 17, 1912, edition, ran a multi-page story about the program in Merrick County. Leonard S. Herron, the magazine's editor then, and Pugsley spent a day driving across the county with Culver and a farmer by the name of W.A. McCullough. They all rode in McCullough's "big seven-passenger automobile" visiting farms where experiments were being conducted. The headline: "Helping Farmers to Help Themselves."

Herron described in the story why the Extension Service was needed, in part due to the fact experiment stations were not "reaching the men on the soil as they should."

I wrote in the 150th issue in 2009 that Extension has been heralded as one of the most efficient, effective information dissemination networks ever devised.

Extension today is more than county offices. County educators travel extensively coordinating Extension meetings and giving presentations at them. They coordinate on-farm research trials. As in Rockwell's painting, they still work closely with 4-H and FFA.

In Nebraska today, Extension enjoys strong support from administration. Under Ronnie Green,  Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources vice chancellor, Extension continues to add to it staff.

I intend to write more about UNL Extension this year, including some of the events planned for this 100th celebration.