May 22, 2014


A look at the first 100 years of Purdue Extension

4-H roundup from 1950's

Photo provided
The most visible of Extension's myriad programs is 4-H. Similar programs for youth emerged in various states prior to the 1914 Smith-Lever Act, but 4-H organized nationally after the legislation was passed. The program has 60 million alumni and more than 7 million active participants in 50 countries. Approximately 800 4-H members posed for this photograph when they gathered on the Purdue campus in the 1950s for the annual 4-H Round-Up program. If you can find yourself in the photograph, please contact us at

The editor of ConnectionsNOW caught up with Fred Whitford for a brief conversation on the history of Purdue Extension. An Extension specialist since 1991, Whitford has authored three books on the history of Purdue agriculture. In addition, he has written more than 250 Extension and regulatory publications and research papers on the subject of pesticides, and he makes between 250 and 300 presentations at conferences, workshops and field days on behalf of Purdue Extension each year.

Fred Whitford
          Fred Whitford

Why is it important to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the 1914 Smith-Lever Act, which provided funding for the Cooperative Extension Service nationwide?

It’s important to celebrate when you have 100 years of anything, whether it’s a business, a school, a family, or a farm. One hundred years signify that something has worked.

We’re celebrating a relationship between Purdue University and the people of this state. For 100 years, Extension has been there to help them, their families and their farms.

A century ago, four men started out as the first county Extension agents (today known as Extension educators), and later all counties would have local Extension staff. Those folks paved the road for today’s Extension staff. Every Extension educator who came before us helped build that roadway. What we’re doing today is thanking them for their contributions over the past 100 years and preparing to build that roadway for the next 100 years.

What was the immediate impact of the Smith-Lever Act in the early part of the twentieth century?

The major significance is that it focused on hiring and placing an Extension agent in every county. Each agent then became the intermediary between the state’s agricultural university and the people of that county.

Is the role of Extension as significant today as it was back then?

I believe it is more significant today. We are still being asked to give advice and make recommendations. We are asked what the latest science shows. We’re doing the same kinds of things our predecessors did, but obviously our technology, our science and everything else is advanced by 100 years.

You have indicated that Purdue was actually ahead of the federal government in establishing a system of Extension agents. Can you elaborate on that?

Smith-Lever was signed into law in 1914, but prior to that, a number of states, including Indiana, worked to establish field-based agricultural consultants, or county Extension agents. Purdue actually hired four field agents prior to the Smith-Lever Act: one in 1912 and three in 1913. Indiana’s first Extension agent was Leonard B. Clore in LaPorte County.

Is there an unknown hero of Extension through the last 100 years who should be recognized?

There are two: William Carroll Latta and George Christie. Both dreamed big to help rural people. Latta, who worked at Purdue from 1882 to 1935, was the second professor of agriculture. He started the Farmers’ Institutes, which were regional meetings based on the needs of individual counties. These were the forerunners of Extension programming. Christie, who worked at Purdue from 1905 to 1928, was our first director of Extension. He envisioned a program where we would have county agents, and he pushed extremely hard to make that happen.

Are the key issues facing today’s Extension educators different than they were 100 years ago?

I don’t believe so. We’re still a people business. What Extension tries to do is base our recommendations on science. We have gone from the horse-pulled plow to the tractor and from field corn to hybrid corn to genetically modified corn.

I don’t know what tomorrow will bring, but our group basically adjusts to the current thinking and the current needs and tries to get what the science shows. So we’re fluid. Extension evolves. That’s what we have done for 100 years.

If we are not people-oriented, then we are not asked to participate in the things that are important at the local, county and state level. We are left out of the process..

If you genuinely care about somebody and what they think and where we’re going and what we’re trying to do — if you have that, then you can be very successful. If you don’t have it, you fail. I don’t care how smart you are or what you have to offer.

So we have people making decisions about their farms and families, their children and their communities based on the information we give them today, which was the same as what Extension agents were doing 100 years ago.

What was the biggest obstacle Extension had to overcome in gaining acceptance with the masses?

In the beginning of Extension, very few farmers knew what science could do for them. They had learned how to farm by following their fathers and their grandfathers. The Extension agents had a college education, and that was held against them because they were viewed as “book” farmers who had no practical experience. Those early agents had to earn the trust of the farmers — something we still have to do today.

Farmers often felt that people who taught at universities were not real farmers. Their thinking was, “You’re not a real farmer, so how can you tell me what to do? I know how to farm, and you don’t. You just plant your little plots.” It was just a lack of science literacy. And since farming is a risky business, why change something when you know what the results are going to be?

In Extension, we want you to change because the results are going to be better than what you’re doing. That is a huge leap of faith. Asking farmers to make a change in the way they have always done things was asking them to gamble their farms, their incomes, and their families’ health and well-being.

One way to convert them was to teach their children how good science could lead to better farming. We’ve all had that experience where you tell your kids something and they don’t really listen or accept it. But if the teacher tells them, then it must be right.

Back in the 1920s when Extension had one-acre contests for 4-H kids,some of them were getting 100 bushels an acre, while their parents were only getting 40 bushels an acre. So we used what those kids were doing to teach their parents what they could accomplish using scientific principles.

It was just one more way of getting to the parents to show them that science did have a place on the farm.

Was there an event that forged Extension as a relevant part of the educational landscape?

The Extension agent (educator) was and is one of the important cogs when it comes to getting anything done at the county level. Whenever anything needed to be ramped up, they would often become the person involved in that effort.

During World War I, we had to raise 20 percent more wheat and meat. Bonds had to be sold to support the war effort. It was the agents who took on those roles in many counties. The agents had to teach farmers how to increase productivity quickly. Their recommendations were based on the power of science and experience — just like our recommendations still are today.

How has Extension been able to adapt to the changes of society over the past 100 years and remain a crucial part of economic and rural development?

Because we are asked the questions. First, if you’ve become a trusted, unbiased source of information and you give your audience the best from your experience and what science has to show, then as long as you don’t lose their trust, your opinion is sought out as the next issue comes up.

And second, we have access to information. We have all these programs. We get invited to county programs, state programs and national programs where we are able to express our views.

That’s what makes Extension both exciting and dangerous, because if somebody is not using science, then their views may not be grounded in fact. They may be grounded in opinion, which is something Extension tries not to do.

So we’re basically a trusted source of information. As long as you’re thoughtful and you try to tell people what the science is, then they keep coming back to you, which means as an Extension educator or specialist, you have to adapt to see what the new topic of the day is.

We give a voice to research. The research that pours out of Purdue — Extension is that voice. Once you have a place of trust with people, then you have the ability to educate people, and as long as you’re honest and open, it’s a heck of a ride.

Tell us something about Extension most people don’t know about and should.

We care about the people we serve. Being in Extension is more than a job. Yes, we’re on the government payroll, and we have a job to do. But every Extension educator and specialist will tell you it goes way beyond the job. And I think it’s because we care about the people we serve.

Our clients are our friends, and we’ve become their confidants — sometimes a sort of business manager and sometimes just a listener. When someone dies in the family, we know the family, We know their kids, we’ve watched them grow, and we’ve watched them succeed and fail. So for lots of us, it’s like we’re almost a part of the families we serve.


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