If you’re looking to learn something new or find out information, one of the best kept secrets is the local Cooperative Extension Service. From row crops to garden crops, from home economics to nutrition, there is a specialist that can help. Granted, there may be fewer numbers than when the Service started, but much of the information can still be accessed through your computer.
First a little history — this past summer, Illinois Extension turned 100.
Illinois might have been known for growing clover and cranberries rather than corn and soybeans if farmers in the early 1900s hadn’t followed recommendations from University of Illinois Extension agents to apply lime to the state’s highly acidic soil, according to Bob Hoeft, who served as interim Extension Director in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences. Demonstrations at agricultural experiment stations and on farmers’ fields across the state showing the benefits of using lime as a soil additive convinced farmers to use lime to balance the pH, making it possible to produce abundant crops of corn, soybeans, alfalfa, and other pH-sensitive plants.
The use of lime is just one example from the past 100 years of the value of Extension whose mission is to bring research-based information to the public. Hybrid corn was another example. “The process to produce hybrid corn was created by university scientists and passed on to companies to grow and market the seed to farmers. Extension played a large part in getting farmers to adopt the use of hybrid seed by establishing demonstration plots in farmers’ fields. Planting these demonstration plots near well-traveled roads gave farmers the opportunity to visit them to observe the difference in disease pressure and ultimately yield between open-pollinated and hybrid corn,” Hoeft said.
In the mid-1930s, many farm families, unlike their city neighbors did not have access to electricity. The combined effort of county Extension staff and local citizens to create rural electric cooperatives eventually brought electricity to all of rural America. In later years, Extension also assisted local leadership in organizing rural water systems. Today Extension staff members are working with companies to expand high-speed Internet systems to rural areas.
Although Extension’s roots are in the rural agricultural community, Hoeft said it has spread to urban areas of the state. “Major efforts are being expended to improve the diets of Illinois residents in both rural and urban areas—diets that will help reduce health problems associated with obesity, including diabetes and heart disease,” he said.
Hoeft said that food deserts—areas in which people do not have access to a full-service grocery store—are problematic in both rural and urban settings. “Often they lack transportation to the store,” he said.
One way Extension is addressing the problem in the East St. Louis area is to lease a bus one day per month to transport people from the food desert area to a grocery store, providing them education on the way to the store about how to buy healthy food.
“On the trip back, Extension specialists provide education on how to process and store the food that they bought,” Hoeft said. “Without this program, many of these people would have to purchase groceries in a convenience store that doesn’t carry fresh fruits and vegetables. There are also some rural counties where people have to drive 60 miles to get to a grocery store. They have to shop at gas station convenience stores. We’re trying to address that problem,” Hoeft said.
The number of specialists per county is fewer today than in the 1980s, but technology has allowed Extension to adapt and increase its reach. Demonstrations are still an important component, but now they can be distributed via the Internet, Hoeft said.
“Today people want information faster,” he said. “Extension’s farmdoc website and its new mobile app is an example of how Extension responded to farmers so that they can get information when and where they want it. With a webinar, we can take a presentation or demonstration right into their home. People can watch it at their leisure or if they watch it while it’s being broadcast live, they can type a question and get an answer from the presenter in real time.”
“Those who were active in those first years of Extension in 1914 would be amazed at where we are today,” Hoeft said. “And I can’t begin to envision where we’ll be 100 years from now.
Here are a few of the upcoming events from the Extension office covering Calhoun, Cass, Greene, Morgan and Scott counties. To sign up or to learn more, go to their website at http://web.extension.illinois.edu/ccgms
- 2014 Gardener’s Day program is scheduled for March 22 – Educational sessions will include: Ornamental Grasses, Fruit Tree Care & Pruning, Japanese Beetles and worm composting Register on-line.
- Timber Sales: Forestry Seminar and Field Day – March 15. This workshop specifically targets Illinois’ woodland owners. Workshop will discuss how to market, conduct timber sales, involve a professional forester, and how to guarantee you more income and sales over your land ownership tenure.
- FAST Training 2014 -Farm Analysis Solution Tools – March 5 – Morgan County Extension Office. A workshop focused on making informed decisions using your computer and spreadsheet tools developed by members of the University of Illinois’ farmdoc team.
- 2014 Spring Four Seasons Gardening Series. This is your chance to learn from some of Illinois’ leading lawn and garden experts. Topics include: The Basics of Growing Herbs, Pest Control Strategies in the Garden, and Bargain Gardening.