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100th anniversary of Smith-Lever Act marked

| Monday, July 14, 2014, 1:36 a.m.
Louis B. Ruediger
Alicia Spangler, field and forage crops educator with Penn State Cooperative Extension, on Friday demonstrates how a drone can be used to fly over farmland to better identify agricultural issues without disturbing crops. She is pictured near the Armstrong County Extension office in Rayburn.

Farming practices have undergone many changes during the past century affecting how local food is produced, preserved and prepared — and Penn State Cooperative Extension has been there by providing educational resources and support to Armstrong County farmers and residents alike.

On Tuesday, the Armstrong County Cooperative Extension Association will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the 1914 Smith-Lever Act, which established the nation's Cooperative Extension system to ensure federal, state and county funding for county extension services.

In Armstrong County, the extension is where families can find out about their local 4-H Club, where nonprofits can learn how to cook for crowds, where individuals can get educated about diabetes or Lyme disease and where farmers and home gardeners can go to find out what's been eating their corn or prized tomato plants.

“People bring in all kinds of strange insects and creepy crawlies,” said Gary Sheppard, district director at Penn State Cooperative Extension.

Experts are on hand to help growers identify and find solutions to any number of issues including diseases, soil deficiencies, invasive weeds and harmful insects, Sheppard said.

The extension started up in Armstrong County in 1916, two years after the Smith-Lever Act took effect. Its original office at the courthouse was moved briefly to a building on Oak Avenue before opening at its current location in 1983 at the Armsdale Building in Rayburn, said Cindy Nichols, office manager.

According to literature provided by the Armstrong County Agricultural Extension Association, one of the first educational outreach efforts in the area involved the selection and distribution of seed corn.

In 1919, a farm product show held in Kittanning showcased homegrown produce, churned butter and baked goods. However, historical records kept by county extension workers note that the show was poorly attended: “In 1919, County Agent (Claude) Yerger reported that there was very bad weather during the show and many country people hesitated to come to town because of Spanish Influenza.”

Back in those early days, folks attended local classes and shows and took correspondence classes through the mail to learn about home economics or new farming techniques, Sheppard said.

“Now we have online webinars so we can spread our expertise across the state,” he said.

Consumer trends have shaped the type of classes offered through the extension.

“A few years ago, there was a spike in food prices and all of a sudden we had a lot of interest in canning — skills that aren't taught in school,” Sheppard said.

But in addition to teaching those time-tested skills, educators at cooperative extensions bring innovative technology and the application of scientific research to local residents.

Alicia Spangler is a field and forage crops educator with the cooperative extension. At a farmer's request, Spangler will use a drone to take aerial pictures and video footage of crop fields to help identify problems. She can adjust the drone's speed, altitude and direction using an iPad to spot areas where crops failed to emerge or where discoloration might signal issues related to nutritional deficiencies.

“Farmers are definitely excited about the technology,” Spangler said. “It's always fun to find new ways to help them.”

And because the 1914 Smith-Lever Act ensures the allocation of funding for the extension's services, farmers are not charged for Spangler's assistance on the field.

It makes for a great relationship between cooperative extension workers and those they serve, Spangler said.

“We help them solve a particular problem and provide education,” she said.

Brigid Beatty is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-543-1303 or bbeatty@tribweb.com.

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