This was the year that cooperative extension services throughout the United States celebrated their 100th anniversary.
Although we may consider cooperative extension a purely American service, the practice of disseminating agriculture information to farmers goes back 2,000 years in Chinese culture. The idea of crop rotation was introduced in China in 800 BC.
Ireland is credited with launching modern extension services in the mid-1800s, primarily spurred by the great potato famine. Oxford and Cambridge universities embraced the notion of university extension, which took knowledge beyond the campuses in the 1860s.
Here in the United States, cooperative extension services fall under the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and are lodged in land-grant colleges, such as Purdue University. Extension services became part of federal law in 1914 with the Smith-Lever Act. The idea was to share information with the public about agriculture, home economics, 4-H and public policy. Funding for extension activities is a mix of federal, state and local dollars, grants and donations.
Today, gardening, community development, family financial fitness, leadership and resource conservation are as much or more a part of extension services as agriculture. Here in Marion County, 4-H focuses on science, technology, engineering, art and math – skills incorporated into an active robotics program, for example.
Of course, my primary intersection with extension is through the Master Gardener program. These frequently unseen volunteers work in many important landscapes in the city, including the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site, the Indianapolis City Market, the Indianapolis Museum of Art and Cold Spring School, IPS’ environmental studies magnet. They conduct many free garden- and nature-related programs and workshops for the public.
Steve Mayer, the coordinator of Marion County Master Gardeners, says of the 390 members, 285 are active volunteers. So far this year, they have donated 14,572 hours to beautify and educate the community about gardening. “This wouldn’t be the most accurate number for 2014 because a lot of people haven’t reported all of their hours, yet,” Mayer said.
So, as we round out 2014 and head into 2015, I thank Purdue’s extension services and especially Master Gardeners, for all of their good work and wish them all the best for another hundred years.