Most people know that my day job is serving at the agriculture extension agent for WVU Extension Service in Kanawha County.
Some people might even know what that means, while I bet a great many people have no idea what extension is or how it works.
This week, we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Smith-Lever Act by President Woodrow Wilson, which created the cooperative extension service as a part of land-grant university system. So, what better time to learn a little more about this educational system that strives to reach out into our communities and “extend” the educational power of the university to the people?
The start of extension
In 1862, the first Morrill Act was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War.
This created the land-grant university system, of which West Virginia University is a part.
The act established these universities to be the “people’s universities” and bring the means of education and research to the common people in areas of agriculture, home economics, mechanical arts and more practical skills.
This was expanded in 1890 with the second Morrill Act, which created the traditionally black land-grant universities of which West Virginia State University is a part.
The system was further expanded in 1994 with the creation of American Indian land-grant colleges.
In 1914, Sen. Hoke Smith (yep, that’s his name), of Georgia, and Rep. Asbury Francis “Frank” Lever (yep, another funny name), of South Carolina, drafted the Smith-Lever Act and got it passed through both houses of Congress.
On May 8, 1914, Wilson signed the act into law. Its purpose was to add an outreach component to the teaching and research already done at the land-grant colleges.
The Extension Service, in effect, “extends” the knowledge of the university right into every community and brings it to a level needed by the residents it serves.
The role of the Extension Service has always been to bring the latest in research to the people.
Extension in U.S. history
Little did Smith, Lever and Wilson know that just after the creation of Extension, the world would plunge into the darkness of World War I.
When America entered the war, Extension was there to help the farm labor shortage and increase production to feed the war effort.
Later, Extension helped again by teaching good farm management skills and increasing production during the Great Depression to help fend of the pangs of hunger felt around the country. It helped teach nutrition so that families feeling the strain of depression would not suffer malnutrition.
It helped teach home vegetable gardening, poultry rearing and more to help quiet those pangs of hunger.
In World War II, once again, Extension helped feed the country while feeding our soldiers abroad. “Victory gardens” were a means for people to produce food for themselves and the war effort. Extension agents aided in the giveaway of seeds, fertilizers and tools and taught people how to use them.
In 1943, there were 20 million victory gardens in the country. They produced 40 percent of the vegetables grown in the country that year. That’s a lot!
Extension has helped rural America through community development, agriculture and the 4-H program (which isn’t just a rural program).
It seems that as new challenges arise, Extension is there to help people make the right choices for themselves and their communities.
As farm numbers dwindle, we help farmers produce enough food to feed the nation.
As our country faces a health crisis, we teach children and adults proper nutrition and help small local farmers increase the availability of fresh, local produce.
And yet we are there for the small, everyday problems as well.
What extension does today
Extension can be found in every state and territory of the United States, and each state and each land-grant university does things a little differently.
Here in West Virginia, we are blessed in that WVU has an office in every county. This is not necessarily the case around the country, as many states have had to make major cuts due to finances.
The Smith-Lever Act sets up funding for Extension in a cooperative manner. Federal funds come from the USDA through the National Institute for Food and Agriculture.
Funding also comes from the state and local governments (the county commissions and boards of education). We use these funds to provide the programs and staff necessary to serve our communities.
Here in Kanawha County, there are three extension agents that serve our community. In addition to myself, Kerri Wade serves as our families and health agent. She does programs in early-childhood development as well as the more traditional extension programs of home preservation (canning) and food safety. Sherry Swint is our 4-H and youth agent. She guides the 4-H youth program in our county, which includes 4-H clubs and summer camps.
And 4-H is not just “cows and plows.” It is the oldest and most diverse youth program in the country, and today engages youths in all types of programs, from traditional farm projects to robotics and rocketry. It is amazing that 1 in 4 youths in West Virginia is involved in a 4-H program.
In addition, we have instructors that teach youths and adults about nutrition and physical activity in schools and community groups, 4-H staff members who teach STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) initiatives in schools and camps, and much more.
Our volunteers in the Master Gardener program serve the community through horticulture education projects and our Community Education Outreach Service (CEOS; they used to be called Homemakers) share education with the community.
Extension has served the country and this state for 100 years, evolving to meet the needs of the time. As we celebrate our centennial, we look to where extension is heading in the next five, 10, 50, 100 years.
Right now we face the task of teaching traditional skills to an ever more digital population, reaching them online through a national portal called eXtension.org, social media and more.
Who knows what challenges we will help the country face, or how we will evolve to do so?
Rest assured, we will meet those challenges and many more and help our people no matter how small or large the task may be.