Stephen Gran wants you to know there's more to his office than you might think.
"We're not just for farmers," said Gran, director of the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences extension office in Hillsborough County. That's the county extension, for short.
The agency celebrates its 100th anniversary this year and, although it began with farming and food preservation, the service has evolved as the county became more developed.
"I would like more residents to realize what the extension service has to offer," Gran said. "We are not just a rural-based service."
Though agriculture remains a large part of the agency, there are many other services available for residents, such as free one-on-one debt counseling. A financial mentor will advise how to rebuild credit, develop a savings plan and even help with income taxes. There are classes on smart auto buying, navigating insurance, nutrition, food allergies, diabetes, couponing and canning.
There's far more, too: parenting courses on communication, discipline and managing stress. Classes on every aspect of gardening imaginable: creating a Florida-friendly landscape, composting, rainwater harvesting, container gardening and pest control. For $3, you can get your soil's pH tested.
Staffers set up gardens at schools and teach children about them. There's 4-H, the youth group overseen by the extension service that reaches 35,000 children in Hillsborough and more than 6 million nationally. It, too, has evolved this century. Many kids still learn about livestock, but they also get instruction in robotics, aeronautics and computers. A Tufts University found that 4-H high school students are twice as likely to participate in science, engineering and computer technology programs during their off-school time, and female high school seniors are three times more likely to take part in science programs on their own time than those not in 4-H.
"It's one of these well-kept secrets," said Sally Thompson, a graduate of the agency's intensive master gardener program and a volunteer since 2001. "People don't realize they have this resource."
It began in the 19th century, when U.S. Sen. Justin Smith Morrill of Vermont helped establish federal funding for universities in each state, making higher education more accessible. The Morrill Act was signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862, creating land-grant universities that now include the University of Florida and Florida A&M University.
In the early 20th century, two U.S. senators wanted to assure the most up-to-date practical research done at the universities was shared with citizens. The Smith-Lever Act of 1914 created a partnership between federal, state and county government — a cooperative extension, funded by all three entities. Each county in the United States was, in essence, to have a satellite branch of the university. Extension agents are also faculty members, but ones whose students are the public.
"The information we are able to deliver to people is fresh from the university," Gran said. "It's education with a purpose."
Hillsborough was the first county to get an extension agent, Gran said, and it continues to be the largest of the offices in Florida with a $2.4 million budget, a dozen extension agents and some 40 employees. A century ago, Florida agents held gatherings to spread agricultural research and traveled between farms. They helped people vaccinate their pigs against a deadly cholera. They fought the boll weevil and introduced more than 60 varieties of legumes from abroad and experimented with hybridization. They helped farmers grow corn, Florida velvet beans, peanuts, cow peas, oats and sweet potatoes. Female home demonstration agents taught women canning of tomatoes, figs and guavas. They shared the best formulas for preserving and making jelly, straight from the Bureau of Chemistry of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"Here in our county, even though agriculture isn't as prevalent as it once was, it still is a huge part of the local economy," Gran said. "Our involvement has stayed very consistent through the years."
Today's agricultural extension agents — working with farmers in citrus, fruits and vegetables, ornamental plants, dairy, livestock — remain the university's "boots on the ground," Gran said.
"We are the first to hear about issues impacting the industry and we are able to get that back to the researchers, so they are able to find ways to address those needs," Gran said. "We are the first to find out about the most recent research developments, that we can then take out to the industry itself."
Doug Steele, co-chairman of the service's national centennial committee and director of the Texas AgriLife Extension at Texas A&M University, said what the service has always taught seem increasingly important: water conservation, nutrition and agriculture. As societies become more urban, he said, it's even more important for people to develop a connection to where their food comes from. Of the country's extension service, Steele said: "I am as excited about the future as I am about the past."
Contact Erin Sullivan at [email protected]