TYLER - Many things change in a century, but human nature, especially the nature of kids, stays the same, said a Texas Cooperative Extension expert.
“One hundred years ago, there was a basic need to teach kids about agriculture, because they lived it, breathed it,” said Derrick Bruton, Extension agent for 4-H and youth in Smith County.
“Today, it’s a challenge to teach kids just what agriculture is,” he said.
The change a century makes is on Bruton’s mind, for Nov. 13 marks the centennial of the first Extension agent in Smith County. Moreover, the agent 100 years ago was not only the first full-time county-based Extension agent in Smith County, he was the first in the United States.
To mark the occasion, a centennial celebration will be held at the Tyler downtown square. Officials from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Extension, and elected representatives are expected to attend the festivities.
It’s entirely appropriate that such an event be held in Tyler, Bruton said.
“East Texas is the cradle of Extension,” he said. “There was the Kaufman County demonstration farm, the first in the country. Then here in Smith County, the first county agent.”
On Nov. 12, 1906, the Smith County Commissioner’s Court made history by funding William Crider Stallings, local farmer, corn breeder and Methodist minister, as the first agricultural agent to serve a single county.
Prior to his appointment, Stallings had been regional agent under federal appointment, Bruton said. At the time, there were no agricultural agents whose job description enabled them to devote their time to a single county.
Newspapers of record report that Dr. Seaman Knapp, the USDA official who first envisioned Cooperative Extension, spoke at the 1906 meeting. Knapp was also responsible for starting the first agricultural demonstration farm in nearby Kaufman County. A demonstration farm, which allows farmers to see agricultural research applied under actual farming conditions, makes much more powerful agent of change than just reading or being lectured about new methods, Bruton explained.
Knapp had built his reputation in the Rio Grande Valley by finding a method to fight the boll weevil, which was ravaging cotton crops in Texas and throughout the South. Knapp and his USDA associates reputedly tried everything from “arsenic to axes” to fight the weevil without success, Bruton said. Lacking modern pesticides, they discovered they could stall the weevil’s progress by plowing under infested land in the fall, preventing the weevils’ eggs from over-wintering. Thus, Bruton said, Knapp’s method was the forerunner of integrated pest management.
This method of boll weevil control was demonstrated at the Kaufman farm, and most likely contributed to Knapp’s credibility among the 44 Tyler businessmen who voted to appoint Stallings.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the region’s farmers had seen reduced yields due to diseases and pests and a depressed economy.
The appointment of Stallings paid off, Bruton said.. Corn yields were doubled within three years, according to the USDA’s records.
Throughout the years, other Extension agents have made a difference in their counties. One of the most famous examples is that of John Moosberg, Extension agent for Shelby County in the 1940s. Moosberg nearly singlehandedly jump-started the poultry production industry in area, said Dr. Tom Blount, resident director of the Texas Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Laboratory Poultry Disease Lab at Center.
After World War II, many returning servicemen didn’t want to go back to the farm. Cotton’s dominant role was fading, and there not enough young men were available to perform the hard labor needed to farmrow crops. Various replacement crops, such as tomatoes and cucumbers, were tried, but nothing produced steady or sufficient income.
Moosberg reminded the local business community that the county’s economy was based on agriculture, and if they didn’t foster it, no one would have money to spend in town.
Moosberg did then what many county agents still do: He provided research-based production information, helped with facility planning and scouted for financial support from local and state governments, Blount said.
In 2004, poultry constituted a $160 million annual industry for Shelby County, Blount said.
In today’s Extension’s vernacular, Stallings’ 1906 appointment would be as an “agricultural/natural resources agent.” Not only have agents’ titles changed, so has the name of the organization. In 2001, “the Texas Agricultural Extension Service” became “Texas Cooperative Extension.”
But whatever the name or the title, the agent’s job and the mission of the organization remain similar , said Preston Sides, county Extension director for Harris County, 1991-96, now retired.
Because of the times, Stallings’ methods of delivering research-based education differed from what is used today, said Sides, whose hobby during his 35-year tenure with Extension and 4-H was studying the organization’s history.
“… He (Stallings) was to use his farming expertise to help increase production volume and quality,” Sides wrote. “But his real challenge was to bring rural farm families into the mainstream of society. He began by going door to door, farm to farm, first overcoming suspicion of government meddling and imposition.
Because Stallings found the adults resistant to learning new farming techniques, he turned to teaching the youth, starting the Boys’ Corn Club in 1908. As the boys’ clubs were the forerunners of the modern 4-H youth clubs, Stallings is often attributed to being the first 4-H agent too. But Stallings was more likely an early adopter than the originator of 4-H clubs, Sides said.
“By 1910, there were corn clubs started throughout the state,” he said.
Though Stallings may not have been the first 4-H agent in Texas, Bruton still counts him as a predecessor. Today, 4-H’s role remains to teach young people new practices which adults may resist adopting, Bruton said.
But these new practices are more likely to be related to health and well-being, such as learning to eat more nutritiously, getting regular exercise, speaking in public, understanding basic home economics and learning to use elements of modern technology, such as electronics and the Internet, he said.
“I like to think that pioneer Extension workers had a heart of missionary service,” Sides said. “Edna Trigg, the first woman hired in Texas to serve as a home demonstration agent (Milam County, 1912) had the same mission, to help people live better lives.”
To Bruton, Side’s statement sums up Extension work in a nutshell: His job, and the job of all Extension, is to help Texans live fuller, more productive lives.