May 7, 2014

UC extension marks century of service to farmers, homemakers, youths

The University of California Cooperative Extension, which celebrates its 100th anniversary Thursday, makes plenty of use of technology as it carries out research and shares the results with farmers. But that does not mean the ways of old are lost.

A photo from the early days shows a farm adviser in a suit, tie and fedora as he visits a swine farm in San Joaquin County. A pair of rubber boots completes the ensemble.

The attire has shifted toward blue jeans and ball caps at the University of California Cooperative Extension, founded 100 years ago Thursday. But the core mission – providing advice to farmers, homemakers and youths – remains the same.

On May 8, 1914, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Smith-Lever Act, which helps fund extension work around the nation. It formalized efforts that had started half a century earlier at UC Berkeley and spread to field stations at Davis and Riverside.

“The research they do is just invaluable to us,” said Ron Peterson, president of the Stanislaus County Farm Bureau, which will celebrate its centennial May 15.

Amanda Carvajal, executive director of the 97-year-old Merced County Farm Bureau, said much the same: “They are in tune with the farmers. They are a trusted and reliable source, and they bring a lot of money with the projects they do.”

Farm bureaus started as a means for getting out the word about the new extension, but now they are separate entities. San Joaquin County’s bureau reached 100 years on April 8.

The extension is funded by federal, state and county money and has employees in county offices and a few UC campuses. Base funding for last year was about $72 million, which does not include grants.

Wilson signed the Smith-Lever Act at a time of notable change in California agriculture. Widespread irrigation made it possible to grow fruits, nuts and vegetables on land that had been used for rain-fed grains and cattle feed. Trucks and tractors started to take over the work of horses and wagons. Many people were moving to cities and needed fresh and preserved food that could be produced efficiently.

That swine photo was from 1939. Another snapshot, from 1927, shows an early kind of pesticide being sprayed in a vineyard – with no sign of the protective suits that are required today.

Fighting bugs with bugs

But the extension in the 1950s was a pioneer in reducing pesticide use, including the release of good bugs that prey on bad ones, said Maxwell Norton, county director in Merced. He is an adviser to growers of wine grapes and tree fruits. His grandfather Dick Van Konynenburg grew peaches in the Salida area.

Peaches have declined from their heyday but still supply two large canneries in the Modesto area. Norton said they are grown today with less water, fertilizer and pesticides thanks in part to the extension.

“My grandfather was a great farmer, but we’re farming even better now,” he said.

The extension is researching how to keep peach trees low to the ground, which would ease the task for harvest workers who have gone up and down ladders over many summers.

Also in the 1950s, the extension took part in research on tomato varieties that could withstand mechanical harvesting, greatly cutting labor costs. The work is credited with keeping tomato canneries a key part of the Northern San Joaquin Valley food industry to this day.

Peterson, an almond grower and dairy farmer, said extension research on reducing water use is helping his trees through this year’s drought. He also has adopted advice on irrigating and fertilizing feed crops with manure-tainted water in a way that keeps pollutants out of waterways.

The extension’s role in helping people eat well dates to the early years, said Terri Spezzano, a nutrition adviser and county director for Stanislaus. Farm families produced plenty of meat and produce, but it was not always available year-round.

“They did a lot of teaching about how to can, how to make food stretch,” Spezzano said.

Aid to migrants

The extension aided poor migrants from the Dust Bowl in the 1930s and promoted the Victory Gardens that helped the nation through World War II. It also played a role in student nutrition with the start of federal funding for school meals in the 1960s.

Bilingual advisers long have provided services to people from Mexico, Southeast Asia and other places. It could mean help with a roadside strawberry patch or lessons on how to cook traditional foods in healthy ways.

Spezzano noted a recent project in the Sylvan Unified School District that featured campus gardens and nutrition advice to students and parents. “We found that we were reducing body mass index in the kids, and test scores went up,” she said.

The extension has programs in which urban and rural residents can earn impressive titles: master gardener, master food preserver and master naturalist (for work on wildlife habitat). Tuolumne County last month held a workshop on reducing the forest fire risk around private camps. Foothill residents also can learn how to preserve oak woodlands.

And then there’s 4-H, which involves about 255,000 of the state’s children and teens in activities as diverse as sheep raising, photography and cooking. Their crisp white uniforms still are as much a part of county fairs as ’80s rock bands and carnival rides.

“It’s a great program,” said Peterson, a former member of Chatom 4-H. “The leadership skills start at a young age for these kids.”

The extension makes plenty of use of computers and other high-tech equipment as it carries out research and shares the results with farmers. That does not mean the ways of old are lost, Norton said.

“We still visit a lot of farms,” he said. “When we’re out seeing and touching and smelling in the fields, we know what’s going on. You can’t get that in an email.”

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