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Penn State Cooperative Extension expands from roots in improving farm life

Mary Ann Thomas
| Sunday, May 4, 2014, 12:43 a.m.
Alicia Spangler, a field and forage crops educator for Penn State Cooperative Extension in Armstrong County, flies a drone over a field of barley during a crop scouting video flight at Todd Crownover's farm in South Bend Township on Wednesday, April 30, 2014.
Jason Bridge | Valley News Dispatch
Alicia Spangler, a field and forage crops educator for Penn State Cooperative Extension in Armstrong County, flies a drone over a field of barley during a crop scouting video flight at Todd Crownover's farm in South Bend Township on Wednesday, April 30, 2014.
A plowing demonstration in the 1920s during a field day in Butler County.
Penn State University
A plowing demonstration in the 1920s during a field day in Butler County.
Members of 4-H in 1944 take a room improvement class offered for free by the Penn State Cooperative Extension.
Penn State University
Members of 4-H in 1944 take a room improvement class offered for free by the Penn State Cooperative Extension.

Alicia Spangler, a field and crop educator for Penn State Cooperative Extension in Armstrong County, released a drone cued to her iPad last week to fly over the fields of an Avonmore farm, checking the growth of the barley.

It's a long and hard-earned leap for Penn State Cooperative Extension agents who, a century ago, were holding special expos to show Pennsylvania farmers just what a tractor was.

A 1918 report from the Penn State program noted that 10 tractors were sold from one of those demonstrations, along with other highlights such as helping to get seed corn to farmers and encouraging the use of nitrate of soda to increase soil fertility.

Fast forward to today, and the program still helps farmers fertilize their fields, but it's gotten more sophisticated.

Spangler had to contact the Avonmore farmer to tell him that her drone found some areas where growth was sluggish and that he likely needed to apply more fertilizer.

The Cooperative Extension program — a durable alliance of the federal government, land-grant universities and state and county governments — is celebrating its centennial throughout the year.

In Pennsylvania, the extension program is administered by Penn State University, tapping its renowned agricultural school and other academic resources.

This alliance of government and higher education sought to share scientific information with those who could put that knowledge to work on farms and in communities across the country.

Today, there are extension programs that would have been unheard of a century ago, such as “Dining with Diabetes” and “Strong Women,” a healthy-living program.

The Cooperative Extension program conducts the essential soil tests for backyard gardeners and commercial farmers alike.

Brian Miller, 37, a third-generation farmer of beef and crops in Clinton Township, plants 2,000 acres, which are mostly leased.

He needs to test the fertility of those fields.

“I don't want to over-apply and be putting that kind of money in someone else's property,” he said.

Miller's family has used the program to get information on a number of farming topics. “They give us a lot of fliers about local meetings and things that would be helpful to us. Also, if you need to find out something, they can direct you to the right person.”

In the city and the suburbs, the Cooperative Extension Master Gardeners program assists backyard gardeners; Allegheny County has the largest such program in the state.

A hallmark of the Master Gardeners is its demonstration gardens, showcasing a variety of plants at North Park and South Park.

There's even art — the Cooperative Extension is presenting “Digital Hand,” an art installation by students of the Penn State School of Visual Arts at the 709 Penn Avenue gallery in downtown Pittsburgh.

“It has nothing to do with farming,” said Deno DiCiantis, district director for the Penn State Cooperative Extension program in Allegheny County. “We thought the exhibit offered a different approach to art, and that it was relevant to expose the folks in Pittsburgh to the art coming out of a land grant university.”

Free knowledge

In 1914, the Cooperative Extension program was a new concept.

Having a consistent food supply was an issue. Not many people were proficient at growing crops, which is what people had to do before substantial amounts of vegetables were routinely trucked across state lines and available in supermarkets.

“We were trying to move agriculture from subsistence to surplus and improve the quality of life for the rural people,” said Gary Sheppard, Penn State Cooperative Extension district director for Armstrong, Indiana and Westmoreland counties.

“If you look at crop yields then, they are horrific by today's standards,” he said.

To improve yields and make rural life better, Congress passed the Smith-Lever Act of 1914 to take the research on agriculture and other fields from land-grant universities to the population.

Farmers accounted for 31 percent of the labor force at that time, according to “Growing a Nation: The Story of American Agriculture.”

There were people who grew food just for themselves.

According to the Census, the country's population living in a city of 2,500 or more was 5.1 percent in 1790 and rose to 35.1 percent by 1890.

Among other things, better crop yields helped usher more people into the cities.

“What's happened is that evolution (from farming) freed up people from agriculture to go into medical research, engineering work and to develop the automobile and the telephone,” Sheppard said.

What a change it was, as today, only about 1.7 percent of the population is involved in farming, he said.

But the government did want to keep some of the farming population.

And the Cooperative Extension had important farm propaganda to flame.

In trying to stem the tide of people migrating from the farm to the cities in the 1920s for better-paying jobs, the Cooperative Extension program produced films.

The classic 1920s silent film, “Poor Mrs. Jones,” follows the title character taking a vacation from her country home to her sister's city apartment.

“The movie is about money and the value of your life,” said Jan F. Scholl, an extension specialist and associate professor in Penn State's Department of Agricultural Economics, Sociology and Education.

“Mrs. Jones is used to eating ham and eggs on the farm, and she finds that the quality of food isn't good in the city, and the cost is astronomical,” she said.

Film was one of the favorite ways the agency got the word out on everything from promoting the rural life to canning.

The agency produced more than 400 films between 1913 and 1930, Scholl said.

“They realized early on, they had to have farm families attend to make changes at the farm,” Scholl said. “If you have both the husband and wife attending and seeing the message of the film, they were more likely to make changes on the farm.”

From canning to diabetes to women in hardship

Throughout its existence, the Cooperative Extension has continued its work on the relationship between food, health and the public.

The program has taught people how to can food and helped them change their diets to better live with diabetes and knock down obesity.

The Cooperative Extension worked on helping rural women, particularly in the early 1900s, when women were beaten down by hardship.

The Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane in Philadelphia had reported since 1841, when the institution was founded (during 20 years), that “the largest number of their cases were farmer's wives, farmers' widows and farmer's daughters,” Scholl said.

Many women had to haul water in buckets to the home 10 times or more a day, she said.

Most farm women didn't have running water until the 1920s.

“They were packing water and trying to put three meals on the table a day,” she said. “If you got stuck with a husband who didn't like you, you were doomed.”

Mary Ann Thomas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4691 or

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