Cooperative Extension Service in the 21st Century
Kentucky’s Cooperative Extension Service 100 years later—affecting change to our communities while changing with the times
“You can only pick out three vegetables at the grocery store today.”
As Rhonda McCarty Tipton explains the day’s shopping rules to her 7-year-old daughter Maeve, a store employee listened in amazement.
“I have trouble getting my child to eat one vegetable, and then I have to force her to eat it,” she tells Tipton, a member of Big Sandy Rural Electric Cooperative.
The second-grader knows more than many adults about nutrition, patiently explaining why she chooses water over soda—“Pop is not good for you”—and why she tries to convince her mother not to drink diet sodas—“They contain too much sodium.” Maeve, who reads at a fourth-grade level, even reviews nutrition labels to check for excess fat or calories.
The youngster learned to read labels at an early age because she has so many food allergies. And she learned to do much more through a program sponsored by the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service. Dr. Debra B. Cotterill, director of the Nutrition Education Program at UK, and Brenda Cockerham, a family consumer sciences agent in Johnson County, each played a role in delivering the program at Highland Elementary in Johnson County.
That combo of a county agent and a subject matter specialist is a well-honed approach to addressing needs and issues Extension-style. Other individuals or groups often collaborate as well. In this case, teachers and volunteers were an important part of the process.
Before anything happens, however, a local Extension Council determines what issues are most important in their county, according to Cockerham.
“We start with our Extension Council,” says Cockerham. “They come together and talk about what they think the issues are. We also try to bring information to them such as statistics. Once they identify the issues, we work with a state specialist to devise strategies and flesh out the game plan.”
The program Maeve attended at Highland Elementary in Johnson County began after the Council identified obesity, diabetes, and heart disease as serious problems in the county.
“Our goal was for an entire school body to make nutritional changes,” Cockerham says. “We worked with approximately 520 kindergarten through sixth-grade students and involved 19 teachers.”
The team used every approach from helping the students plant a vegetable garden, to games, dance, reading books, taste testing, and hands-on activities that reinforced nutritional concepts.
They used materials from proven nutrition education programs such as LEAP 1 and LEAP 2, Professor Popcorn, and OrganWise, along with techniques from SNAP-Ed (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). Reading books was a strategic part of the plan. Even the lunchroom cooks were in on the effort, serving foods the students were studying.
The results: a whopping 60-80 percent of the students made changes in their behavior. Adds Cockerham, “I wager those students know more about nutrition than the adults in this entire county.”
And that is just one nutrition program in one county. SNAP-Ed, for example, is conducted in all 120 counties and is available to any individual eligible to receive SNAP benefits. Another popular program, the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP), which targets families and children with limited resources and has been taught across Kentucky for 43 years, is currently available in 51 counties. There are numerous others.
All of the programs have documented results. For example, Cotterill says in 2011, 90 percent of SNAP-Ed participants statewide said they used the food resource management practices they learned, 68 percent now read food labels, 99 percent have made at least one positive change in their diet, and 74 percent now practice safe food handling behaviors.
Effecting change with research
Evaluations are a part of every Extension program. So is research. Research-based advice is one of the founding principles of the Cooperative Extension Service.
The Morrill Act of 1862 established land-grant universities to educate citizens in agriculture, home economics, mechanical arts, and other practical professions. Extension was formalized in 1914, with the Smith-Lever Act, which established the partnership between the agricultural colleges and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to provide for cooperative agricultural Extension work. Kentucky was ahead of the curve, establishing its first full-time Extension agent in Henderson County 100 years ago this fall.
Kentucky has two land-grant schools: the University of Kentucky and Kentucky State University. Both programs focus on four areas: agriculture, consumer family sciences, youth (4-H), and community and economic development.
The importance of Extension’s research-based information became clear for Dr. Jimmy Henning, director of the UK Extension Service, years ago when he was a forage specialist. A farmer questioned why Henning recommended a particular forage variety. Henning went back and changed the research plan to give the farmer a better answer, and in the process was able to determine exactly how much more profitable the Extension recommendation was versus the forage the farmer had been using.
The value of research also showed up in 2001 when foals were dying in significant numbers but no one knew why. A similar outbreak had occurred in 1981.
“It was a difficult time to be advising farmers,” Henning says. “Without research, people were looking everywhere for answers. The person with the strongest voice was heard. Everyone had a theory. There was lots of emotion and sensitivity.”
Uncertainty ruled until the following spring, when the caterpillars, considered the likely cause, returned. UK scientists were able to definitively link cause and effect: mares who came in contact with caterpillars aborted their foals. Those with no contact did not.
Besides solving a problem with far-reaching effects for the horse industry, the situation reinforced the value of research once more for Henning.
“Everything we do in Extension is research-based,” Henning says. “We are teaching based on proven things. People come to us for a proven answer, not just what they can search online or what they overheard at a conference or from someone else. They know our recommendations will work here because we have done the research here to prove it.
“We are not in business to make a profit. We don’t have an agenda. The only reason we exist is to make each county better.”
Ag and economic development
That’s a far-reaching objective with equally diverse programs.
Some, such as KSU’s Third Thursday meetings, are designed for a specific clientele, in this case those with small farms. They include Dana Lear in Lincoln County, which is serviced by Inter-County Energy Cooperative.
“We have a small farm,” says Lear, “and tobacco was a 13-month job. It was never finished. When the tobacco buyout came, we were tickled to death. We needed something easier to handle.”
Lear wasn’t sure what enterprise would be good for her small family farm, however. She found the answer at the Third Thursday meetings.
Third Thursday is a program for farmers, consumers, Extension agents, small-farm assistants, USDA agencies, and state agency personnel, explains Dr. Marion Simon, director of the program and an Extension specialist. Third Thursday participants meet to hear experts discuss a subject for four hours. Participants have ample time to ask questions during lunch, which often includes foods the farmers might want to raise or grow themselves.
“Four hours provides a good introduction into a subject,” Simon says. “It provides enough understanding to see if it is an enterprise you want to pursue. If so, participants can attend more in-depth meetings on the subject or work with their county agent to get started.”
Back at the Lear farm in Lincoln County, the answer to a more suitable enterprise turned out to be goats. Today, Lear has around 48 goats at any given time. Most are sold for meat. Hay provides additional income. Collectively, Lear says she is making more on goats and hay than she ever did in tobacco—“plus it is much easier work.”
Extension offers agriculture programs in virtually every enterprise you can name, which makes sense since the Extension program began at what was called A&M—agriculture and mechanical—colleges.
Sharing the fine arts
But Extension has also changed with the times and now provides programs in subjects you might not imagine.
Just ask Anne Stephens, a fine arts agent in Greenup County.
“We have a long, rich cultural heritage in Greenup County,” she notes. “We have so much talent.”
The Fine Arts Program nurtures that talent through three areas of programming: youth development, community arts, and collaborations with other organizations.
The result is an array of creative opportunities from making and playing dulcimers, to music festivals featuring local artists, to activities that support organizations such as the libraries and the American Cancer Society.
Like many who participate in the fine arts programs, Stephens is a newcomer to Extension, not having grown up in a rural area. This is deliberate. As the state and country become less rural, Extension is expanding and diversifying to meet the needs of a more diverse population.
Growing youth through 4-H
Some things have not changed, though. Whether they live in the country or the city, youth remain a primary audience.
“We try to increase the ability of today’s young people to think scientifically and learn to problem solve,” says Torey Earle, a 4-H agent for science, engineering, and technology who is based in Paducah.
Among other ways, Earle does that by having the young people build rockets out of cardstock or 2-liter plastic bottles and launchers out of PVC pipe.
“The rockets soar up 200 to 300 feet, sometimes 400 feet down range,” says Earle. “When you look at the kids’ faces, you see why I do it. They are learning that they can do engineering and technology, that they can do things they never thought they could. They are learning by doing. You never forget those things.”
Earle doesn’t stop with rockets. He also leads the kids into biotechnology, global positioning systems, global information systems, robotics, forces in motion, and energy and electricity.
“I just try to make the learning of scientific principles or engineering-related principles fun for them,” Earle says.
Up in the middle of the state, Dr. Teferi Tsegaye, dean of the College of Agriculture, Food Science & Sustainable Systems (CAFSSS) and director of Kentucky State University’s Land Grant Program, sums up the work of Extension succinctly:
“We are here to reach people, improve life, and provide services where needed. We are part of the community.”
FEATURED COOPERATIVE EXTENSION PROGRAMS
To find out more about the programs described in this article, call the following:
Expanded Food and Nutrition Program (EFNEP), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), & numerous other nutrition programs
Dr. Debra Cotterill
or e-mail email@example.com
Dr. Marion Simon
or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
4-H Science and Technology
Torey K. Earle
or e-mail email@example.com
UK Cooperative Extension Service
Dr. Jimmy Henning
or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
KSU Cooperative Extension Program
Dr. Teferi Tsegaye
or e-mail email@example.com
KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: Cooperative Extension
Happy 80th to Kentucky Extension Homemakers Association
Learn more about the Kentucky Extension Homemakers Association with more than 15,000 volunteer members across Kentucky, whose mission is to improve the quality of life for families and communities through leadership development, volunteer service, and education.
Sampling of Cooperative Extension Programs
You can also find a sampling of other Cooperative Extension programs—from the Organic Production Program or Aquaculture at Kentucky State University or the Kentucky Forest Leadership Program for high school students, and horse camps offering a four- to five-night educational program for recreational horse owners.
Cooperative Extension by the numbers
Learn how important Cooperative Extension programs are to Kentuckians. From 4-H youth, 89,000 said they acquired one or more life skills as a result of participation. Find out more about how Cooperative Extension makes a difference.
Read all three of these story extras at Cooperative Extension.
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