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farm-equipment-demonstration.jpgThe legislation that established Alabama's oldest and largest educational outreach agency, the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, will mark its 100th anniversary May 8.

Considered by many historians as one of the most far-reaching educational acts in history, the legislation, known as the Smith-Lever Act of 1914, provided the basis for Alabama Extension and similar Extension programs in every state in the nation.

In Alabama, where much of the groundwork for Cooperative Extension work was laid years in advance of the Smith-Lever Act, Extension officials are planning a series of commemorative events that will extend through 2015, which marks the year that the state formally implemented the provisions of the legislation.

Dr. Gary Lemme, Alabama Extension director, says that while some of the celebration will focus on the pivotal role earlier generations played in laying the groundwork of the Extension mission, the main emphasis will be on how Extension is changing to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse and urbanized state.

"Over the course of our history, we have held true to three values that comprise the foundation of our mission: a strong commitment to research-based knowledge; a strong emphasis on building positive relationships with those we serve; and finally, a strong commitment to providing relevant programs," Lemme says. "We're being challenged to devise new ways to deliver our programs, but our fidelity to those core Extension values will not change."

To underscore this commitment, Lemme points to a few of the ways Alabama Extension educators shaped the lives of Alabamians in 2013:

  • More than 7,100 Alabama youth improved their eating habits, increased physical activity and prepared food more effectively following six-week training through the Extension Food Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP).
  • Advances in stinkbug infestation and control in cotton, an effort marshaled largely by members of Alabama Extension's crops team, led to gross savings for farmers of approximately $18 million.
  • The Extension-sponsored Pond-to-Plate program targeted to catfish producers, offers the prospect of a 65 percent increase in Alabama catfish production over the next generation.
  • Meanwhile, an estimated 78 percent of approximately 700 goat and sheep producers reported increased production efficiency as a result of Extension training.

One hallmark of the Smith-Lever Act was the establishment of a grassroots Extension presence in virtually every county in the nation. While funding shortfalls have forced some states to reduce this presence to fewer counties or to replace it entirely with regional offices, Alabama Extension continues its longstanding commitment to maintain educators in all 67 counties.

Within the last 20 years, this presence has been enhanced by the unification of the Extension programs of Alabama's historically white land-grant institution, Auburn University, with its historically black counterpart, Alabama A&M University. Following this unification, Extension stepped up its efforts to reach more urbanized and nontraditional audiences.

A primary focus of Extension work in early 20th century Alabama was on helping farmers deal with the economic prospects of Alabama farmers, many of whom raised cotton under the persistent threat of the boll weevil, an invasive insect that seriously reduced cotton yields, the South's principal crop at the time.

Eventually, program areas were expanded to include assistance with dairying, livestock production, agronomy, horticulture, farm marketing and plant and animal diseases. Youth outreach, typically through Boys and Girls clubs, the forerunners of 4-H clubs, was also a major focus.

Plans were also implemented to promote the rapid growth of programming targeted to women, with an emphasis on the expansion of female Extension agents. The work was targeted specifically to women and their needs rather than indirectly through farm demonstration agents and specialists pursuing the more general goal of improving agricultural and rural conditions.

Extension work has expanded far beyond these program areas. Today, some 900 Extension educators and professionals throughout the state deliver programming in six different programming areas: Health and Wellness across the Life Span; a Safe and Secure Food Supply; Sustainable Agriculture and Forestry Systems; 4-H and Youth Development; Workforce Development; Financial Literacy and Environmental Stewardship.

Lemme says the centennial offers Extension educators a unique opportunity to draw inspiration and insights from the past as they prepare for the acute challenges of the future.

"In this era of Big Data, smartphones, apps, ePublications and iBooks, our educators are being challenged to deliver the bulk of products through digital means, but this digitally delivered material will be just as relevant to local needs as it has for the past 100 years," he says. "Likewise, the core values that defined our mission in the 20th century will remain as integral and vital to 21st century mission."


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