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Of the Earth: Local Extension continues to support rural community

  • BLIXT

  • In 1862, U.S. Sen. Justin Morrill of Vermont authored a law that awarded 30,000 acres of federal land to each state to fund the creation of a college dedicated to “agriculture and mechanic arts.” Courtesy photo/Library of Congress

  • An Extension Service agent was once the subject of a 1948 painting by Norman Rockwell, called “The County Agent.” Courtesy photo



For the Recorder
Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Sally Ballou of Orange offered this kind response to a recent column:

“I was more than pleased to see your reference to the UMass Extension Service as a support system for today’s hunger problems. In the 1940s, this was a very county active organization and provided needed information to homemakers as well as youngsters in 4-H groups. My mom regularly attended a monthly program in Orange, held at the high school building, and (it was) well attended. Each month was a different subject — sometimes vegetables in season and how to use them, a sewing lesson or two. I was enrolled in the 4-H canning program, also at OHS in the Home Ec room. To this day, I do some preserving ... Time to get the program going again for today’s ‘homemakers’ and all the ready-to-eat stuff that is not as healthy as ‘do it yourself.’”

While the solution to today’s pervasive food insecurity may be more complicated than home canning, Ballou makes an excellent point about the Extension Service — a program that goes to the root of what is now the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and one that, for more than 100 years, has been bringing the university’s latest agricultural, environmental, nutritional and youth-centered research to our local communities.

I’m a little biased, having happily worked for the UMass Extension Service for about a decade. I still like reminding people, at times like this, that in 1862, U.S. Sen. Justin Morrill of Vermont authored a law that awarded 30,000 acres of federal land to each state to fund the creation of a college dedicated “to agriculture and mechanic arts.” (While the land itself could be anywhere, and it may well have belonged to Native American tribes, the states could still cash in on it ... but that’s another story.)

Thus was born the land-grant university. Massachusetts was among the first to sign up, which precipitated a long, very familiar and (depending how you look at it) comic brawl about exactly how to cash in and where to site the new Massachusetts Agricultural College (MAC). In the end, the state wound up with two land-grant colleges: MIT in Cambridge and MAC, which was eventually sited in the pasture now occupied by UMass Amherst. This happened though a process of accretion rather than in one dramatic founding event. But that, too, is another story.

What makes this significant for the farms and food of our region is that in 1914, Congress passed the Smith-Lever Act, which established Cooperative Extension and spelled out the terms under which the mission of the land-grant colleges would be to serve the public (Wayne D. Rasmussen outlines this in his 1989 book, “Taking the University to the People: Seventy-Five Years of Cooperative Extension.”)

Until the 1990s, Extension offices were funded largely in and by the counties. In the Franklin County Courthouse, you could find an Extension agent to help address almost any farm or household issue. Since then, things have gotten a lot more complicated. The upshot is that the Extension Service has been subsumed by UMass Amherst’s academic departments. It is now part of the Massachusetts Center for Agriculture, Food and the Environment, and maintains a range of programs in agriculture, natural resources, nutrition, food science, climate change and 4-H.

Extension agents never resembled bumbling Henry Wadsworth “Hank” Kimball from the ’60s sitcom “Green Acres.” OK, maybe some did. But not many, and they generally aren’t “agents” anymore, though they continue to have deep local roots.

This is what I think of when I think of the Extension staff:

Scott Jackson of Whately bounding out of a still-moving car, trousers rolled up, wading into a stream to check on whether a culvert could, in fact, sustain the hidden highway for wildlife;

Tina Smith of Greenfield enthusiastically offering the latest gardening tips on WRSI;

the late Bob Childs of Conway being so excited by his team’s discovery of the Asian long-horned beetle that he resorted to using cheap vodka, purchased in haste in Greenfield, as a preservative;

Gisela Walker of Charlemont teaching town planners how to plan;

the nutrition staff being among the first to map food insecurity in the county;

and Joe Shoenfeld of Conway helping to keep the focus on “taking the university to the people” through a succession of funding crises.

There are others, all part of the Extension Service, which survives in its own quiet way. And maybe, as Sally Ballou suggests, it’s “time to get the program going again,” or at least to keep it going strong.

Wesley Blixt lives in Greenfield. He is a longtime reporter and is the author of “SKATERS: A Novel.” Send him recipes, stories and suggestions at wesleyblixt@me.com.