A seed that grew deep roots

North Carolina’s Cooperative Extension Service at 100—Part 1
By Carole Howell

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Great things come from small beginnings. North Carolina's Cooperative Extension Service, officially celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, grew from a tiny seed actually planted more than a century ago. That seed — a desire for education and progress — has grown heavy with fruit in ways its planters never dreamed.

Beginnings

As all good gardens, it literally began with the soil. In 1862, the federal Morrill Act provided funds from the sale of federally owned land to establish colleges for teaching agriculture and mechanical arts.

Not long after, a group of young North Carolinians, interested in the economic and social betterment of North Carolina, began meeting in Raleigh. This non-partisan group of professionals called themselves the Watauga Club, and their push was responsible for the creation of the North Carolina College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts, now North Carolina State University. In states that limited educational access to minorities, the second Morrill Act opened the door for North Carolina A&T State University in 1890.

From the start, college administrators recognized the importance of extending research-based agricultural knowledge to farmers. At a time when the boll weevil threatened North Carolina's cotton industry, lessons learned from research helped contain that threat. In 1907, Iredell County became the first in North Carolina to have a county agent, and the first farm demonstration project applied the latest research to four acres of corn and cotton.

The next year, N.C. state officials and the U.S. Department of Agriculture branched out to the next generation of farmers. Farmers' Boys' Clubs, also called Corn Clubs, were followed by Girls' Clubs just three years later.

By 1910, the first African-American county Extension agent, traveling by wagon, was visiting farmers in Guilford, Randolph and Rockingham counties. His demonstrations brought the latest in land-use methods and crop research to isolated pockets of farmers.

The North Carolina Cooperative Agricultural Extension Service officially took root with the federal Smith-Lever Act of 1914, opening up a partnership with county governments to conduct farm demonstration work.

Growth spurt

The U.S. was facing war, and when President Herbert Hoover called for food conservation, North Carolina Cooperative Extension began offering home food preservation classes. During the Great Depression, the Extension altered its focus to promoting family food production and preservation as an anti-poverty solution. Despite a shortage of labor, farmers grew record crops thanks to research and support provided by Cooperative Extension agents. As the war began to wind down, a Spanish flu pandemic struck North Carolina. Home demonstration agents and clubwomen organized to nurse influenza patients.

As the U.S. rallied to fight the war in Europe and the Pacific, citizens went into full production mode. 4-H'ers led scrap metal drives and a "Feed a Fighter" campaign. With Victory Gardens providing an estimated 40 percent of the nation's food supply, Cooperative Extension worked with homemakers to preserve homegrown produce in a time of rationing.

State College, as NCSU was then known, had already grown past its original agricultural and mechanical focus by adding schools of engineering, textiles, education, business and a graduate school. Post-WWII brought the G.I. Bill, and thousands of returning servicemen took advantage of the program. State College expanded once again to include schools of design, forestry, physical science, mathematics, and humanities and social sciences, all to train a budding workforce.

Evolution and expansion

North Carolina Cooperative Extension continued to refine its services for a changing environment. County agents worked with farmers to adopt technologies such as mechanized planters and harvesters, commercial fertilizers and hybrid seeds. The result was less labor and an enormous jump in farm productivity.

Long before today's emphasis on preventing diseases before they start, Extension home demonstration clubs were encouraging women to have annual physicals, tuberculosis and cancer screenings, teaching home nursing courses, and organizing Red Cross blood drives.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 ended racial segregation of Extension programs and brought African-American Extension workers into the organization's mainstream. A new generation of 4-H Club members enthusiastically tackled social, energy and environmental issues.

Cooperative Extension remained in step with a changing environment. In 1969, with the goal of "Better-Fed Families," a program called the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program taught people how to stretch their food dollars and took nutrition education to families at or near the poverty level. By the 1970s, inflation, oil prices and, later, interest rates threatened to prune back family income. Extension specialists responded by teaching families about budgeting, saving and credit. With the rise in single-parent families and two parents working, 4-H added a school-age care initiative to train after-school care providers.

A techno-savvy generation took advantage of the latest communication technology, the Internet, and Cooperative Extension launched an extensive network of web-based materials dedicated to cutting-edge information and education from agriculture to zoology.

Cooperative Extension has always been there with solutions. When water quality was threatened in the widespread Neuse River Basin, a group of agents and specialists tackled river health, reducing nitrogen levels by 30 percent. After Hurricane Floyd, county agents literally worked around-the-clock with emergency and livestock management, and provided research-based information to help flood victims recover.

And when the U.S. went back to war in 2001, Cooperative Extension and 4-H soon developed a military youth program to support boys and girls age 5-19, especially those whose parents were deployed overseas.

Today, N.C. Cooperative Extension is tackling childhood obesity and a rise in chronic conditions such as diabetes, encouraging entrepreneurs, promoting locally grown produce and training the next generation of farmers. It recognizes that families come in many forms, and works to influence public policy for the wellbeing of all.

And it's all because of a tiny seed, planted so many years ago by people who would never see it mature, but believed it could do great things. They would be both amazed and proud of how Cooperative Extension has grown to meet every challenge one at a time. Just imagine what the next 100 years will bring.

This is part one in a series.
North Carolina's Cooperative Extension Service at 100

Part 1: A seed that grew deep roots

Part 2: Power Up!

Part 3: Green and growing

About the Author

Carole Howell is an independent writer and amateur muscadine grower in Lincoln County. You can read more about her at walkerbranchwrites.com

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