A couple weeks ago I attended the 100th anniversary celebration of Polk County Extension Service. The staff at the Altoona office held an open house. Andrea Nelson, regional director for Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, along with John Lawrence, interim vice president for ISU Extension, gave interesting and inspiring presentations. Nelson looked back at the 100-year history of Extension activities in Polk County. Lawrence looked back at the 100-year history of Extension in Iowa.
It’s the story of how agriculture has evolved, along with delivery of information and programs from Iowa’s land-grant university. Polk County includes Des Moines, its suburbs and nearby rural areas, so it’s also the story of how Extension programming has changed to meet the needs of the nonfarming public as well as farmers.
Congress passed the Morrill Act in 1862. It was signed into law by President Abe Lincoln, establishing the land-grant university system — “a university for the people.” Iowa was the first state to sign on and partner with the federal government to establish a land-grant university. Iowa, however, was a front-runner even before the Morrill Act.
Iowa State College and Model Farm
In 1858 the Iowa Legislature passed the Iowa Agricultural College Act, establishing the Iowa State College and Model Farm, the beginning of what is now ISU. Actually, county agricultural societies began to form in Iowa as early as 1842. And there were 59 county ag societies by 1858 when the college was formed.
The Iowa State College and Model Farm was directed to teach, have a model farm for hands-on learning, and create a bureau to gather and deliver to the people the information learned from that research. Eventually, the Hatch Act of 1887 provided federal funds to states to establish experiment stations to do research. And the Smith-Lever Act of 1914 formally established the Cooperative Extension Service, a partnership between the federal government and the states.
In 1912, several counties in Iowa had already started to formally organize for ISU Extension work, delivering research-based information to farmers and others. Now the counties are celebrating their centennial of Cooperative Extension work. This year 21 counties, including Polk, are crossing the 100-year line.
Other highlights from the early days
As the roots of Cooperative Extension in Iowa were beginning to grow, other highlights included:
• 1903. A “farmers institute” was held and the first experimental corn growing demonstration plot was established in Sioux County.
• 1904. The first run of the Seed Corn Gospel Train (from Gowrie to Ruthven to Estherville) began.
• 1905. The first local short course was in Red Oak and drew 250 farmers.
• 1906. The Extension Act was passed authorizing Iowa State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts to undertake Extension work. State funds became available and have been fought over in the budget ever since.
• 1917. The Polk County Farm Improvement Association, which later became Polk County Extension, hired its first county agent, Carl Kennedy. Its first home demonstration agent, Jessie Campbell, was also hired. They worked hard to form cooperatives and collaborate with farmers and businesses to tackle the problems of the day. They helped created a livestock breeders association, a hail insurance company to protect against crop losses and a milk marketing association that first year. Home economics demonstrations reached more than 8,000 people.
Continuing to help make Iowa strong
It’s an interesting history. Now 100 years later, here’s some of what ISU Extension is accomplishing statewide:
• More than 1 million people directly benefit from ISU Extension programs each year. That’s 1 in 3 Iowans.
• About 100,000 4-H youth are building skills for college and career readiness. That’s nearly 20% of all Iowa kindergarten thru 12th-grade youth.
• ISU Extension supports online courses for 50,000 users. They’d nearly fill Jack Trice Stadium at Ames, if they were on campus rather than online.
• More than 16,000 volunteers partner with ISU Extension. That’s more than a sell-out crowd at Hilton Coliseum.
Extension doesn’t achieve this on its own
Iowa has 99 counties and each has a county Extension council. Statewide, there are 900 locally elected council members, volunteers working as partners with Extension for a strong Iowa.
ISU Extension and Outreach is strong because “we are talented people working together — campus and county, faculty, staff and council members,” Lawrence says. “Our success is because of ‘we.’ We can find solutions from across programs and disciplines to educate and serve Iowans.
“We help each other to be successful by sharing information, lending a hand or being a sounding board,” he says. “The communication and camaraderie make us stronger as we care for our organization and our colleagues. We all can be proud to be part of the ISU Extension and Outreach team. Together we provide education and build partnerships to solve today’s problems and prepare for the future. We’re focused on feeding people, keeping them healthy, helping their communities to prosper and thrive, and turning the world over to the next generation better than we found it.”