Reliable food resources have always been the key ingredient for a population’s survival. This was certainly evident in the United States as pioneers put roots down into new territories. There were limited opportunities, though, to exchange agriculture knowledge in remote regions. Both the soil and seasons would be foreign to many of those attempting to cultivate the raw ground.
How did these beginning farmers learn how to raise crops to feed growing communities?
If we dig deep in history, you will find the seeds of agriculture education were started with the Morrill Act, on July 2,1862. A Vermont congressman, Justin Morrill, requested Abraham Lincoln to sign a law requiring federal land to be donated to each state with an unusual stipulation.
In return, the states were required to sell this gifted land and use all of the proceeds to fund state agriculture colleges to serve the public. In total, 69 colleges were funded, including Cornell University — hence the familiar term today, “land grant colleges.”
These colleges provided the foundation for agriculture education, yet there remained the question of how to transfer all of this organized knowledge into the farmers’ hands.
Surprisingly, it was the railroads that became the messengers of farming information using their main lines and spurs. It was a mutually beneficial idea for the farmers and the train companies since population growth meant more customers for everyone.
With shrewd profit-making motives, companies selling fertilizers, seeds and equipment, along with the bankers, joined in to build a traveling road show of railway demonstration cars. Each of the approximately 12 railroad lines had a staff of in-house experts, and one rail line even constructed live demonstration plats on 133 farms, thereby placing knowledge and product directly into the farmers’ hands to assure bountiful harvests and profits for all.
During this same period, the land grant colleges had become established and now were prepared to create its own way to deliver education into the rural fields. In 1914, with the signing of the Smith–Lever Act, the Agriculture Extension Services was established. This highly successful method reached into the communities and provided a trained expert for farming and rural-living advice. Nearly every county had a university-backed, agriculture representative available to answer questions and schedule on site visits to discuss insects, gardening and a multitude of other topics.
For the past 40 years, this invaluable partner quietly slipped into the background in many communities. This shift coincides with numerous small farms being left idle, industrial food becoming popular, and less people knowing how to work the land.
The tide has shifted again with headlines announcing renewed interests for local food, better health and an elevated concern for the environment. Learning how to raise food, once again, is invaluable for many. Fortunately, we still have the main offices of the extension services available in every state and a local agent for nearly every county. All of this assistance is free and available to the public, and yes, they still believe the old fashioned way is best and make field calls.
The information available is extensive and for youth. There are 4-H programs, and for adults, master gardening classes, nutrition and food preparation. If you are a rancher, farmer or have a landscape problem, the extension service will connect you to their experts. This year the National Cooperative Extension Services’ is proudly celebrating its 100th year.
On the local scene, Pitkin County last fall restored the extension agent position after a 21-year absence. The Aspen Times, on Aug. 25, 2013, ran the headline, “Pitco lands part-time extension agent,” which shared the following news: “The new agent selected is Jeff Pieper, a Colorado native who grew up in Ft. Collins. Pieper has a bachelor’s degree in food crop production from Colorado State and a master’s in Sustainable Agriculture Systems from the University of Rhode Island.”
Colorado State University wants to have every county represented again with an agent, and Pitkin was one of the three counties without one. Fortunately, Eagle County is sharing its agent, Pieper, one day a week with Pitkin County to see how the service will be utilized.
Without hesitation, I can say this is one of the greatest resources we have to help communities grow towards a healthier future. Here are some addresses to start with:
Western Region: www.coopext.colostate.edu/WR/
Small Acreage: www.ext.colostate.edu/sam/
General info: www.csrees.usda.gov
Joni Keefe currently works for a commercial airline while continuing to write about agriculture and food. Follow Farms Finest on Twitter, on Facebook and in The Aspen Times on Sundays.