Johnson County Extension Service adapting to its environment
October 20, 2017
One hundred years ago, when the Johnson County Extension Service started in Kansas, the area was a very different place — mostly farming communities and not at all urban.
Today, the county has the highest population in Kansas at about 584,451, about 30 times what it was in 1917, and much of it has developed into suburbs. Forty-five percent of the land remains agricultural.
The extension service has grown and changed right alongside the county's population. It works in conjunction with Kansas State University, the state's land-grant institution.
At the beginning, the purpose of the extension service was "taking the university faculty and putting them out into the local counties. … They were really the ones that were taking the research from the land-grant institutions and bringing it to the people, … helping them interpret that research-based information into how it could be applicable within their fields," said Tara Markley, director of the extension service.
“In some ways, the internet’s our competition, but in some ways, I would say the world needs extension more now, because there’s no filter on the internet. There’s a lot of bad recommendations out there.”
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A report from 1920 recorded the county's agent as visiting 235 different farmers over 185 days spent in the field that year. He consulted with farmers on issues such as orchard work, smut control and rodent control.
"There would be recommendations on varieties — that was before the days of a lot of commercial companies doing breeding. It was done more at universities. … (They also helped with) disease management and diagnosis," said Dennis Patton, an agent who has been with the extension service for 32 years.
Other issues agents addressed in that time period include breeding and genetics as well as ways to get higher yields from crops.
Over the course of its first decade, the extension service expanded to include sewing, canning and nursing programs as well as nine 4-H clubs for girls. Johnson County's first 4-H club taught kids how to raise swine.
"The whole youth program was extension's way of teaching the parents by teaching the kids. So, the main thrust of 4-H was really adult education — even though it's evolved into one of the best youth education organizations," Patton said.
Currently, the county has 19 clubs with 660 active youth members.
The extension service "started out really focused to men, because they were the farmers. Then, women (wanted help too), and then the youth development part came along. I think where you start seeing more changes drastically is when the Dust Bowl rolled around," Patton said. "I've seen great photos of women making mattresses, canning — the victory garden movement — extension had a role in all those changing times."
One major innovation the extension service helped with during the Dust Bowl was conservation via hedgerows, wind breaks, terracing and cover crops. Those changes still resonate in present-day Johnson County.
"If you go back to the drought of 2012, which actually, we had a drier period in '11, '12, '13, than the Dust Bowl days, but our world was not covered with dust because of the conservation practices in the agricultural world," Patton said.
After World War II, as the population shifted from mostly rural to mostly suburban, the extension service augmented its programming to adapt to the changes.
"The demand was there, from an agricultural standpoint — with the Dust Bowl and all those practices. Extension is all about meeting the community's needs. Do we have services today for (people in the cities)? Yes. But back then, I would say the highest demand was coming from agriculture," Markley said.
Public interest waned for some of the skills extension focused on in its early years, such as canning, but since the recession, they've seen a resurgence of interest.
"Beekeeping was a legitimate Kansas project in the '80s and early '90s, but then it kind of died out, and so they did away with it because there wasn't a demand. Now with the whole emergence of protecting the bees and needing those pollinators, there's a huge push to bring that beekeeping project back active into the Kansas 4-H program," Markley said. "It's things like that (where) extension has that adaptability, that flexibility."
Last year, when the county encountered its first widespread occurrence of oak mites (and their itchy bites), the community — rural and urban — turned to the extension service in large numbers for more information.
Overall, though, there's "a lot more focus now on city dwellers, suburbanites … that's where the vast majority of taxpayers are these days … extension does feel that pull and push between traditional programs versus the more suburban and urban needs," Patton said.
One program that has blossomed because of the shift is horticulture. The extension service has almost 500 master gardeners who volunteer and teach gardening skills in the county.
Another more recent development is an abundance of people who had rural roots, then lived in the urban areas for decades, deciding to have 10- or 20-acre farms. To meet their needs, the extension service has developed programs to address pond and range management.
Trying to help everyone can be a difficult balance for the extension service, which has had to rely more and more on volunteers to be able to address the needs of a constantly growing population without a similar boost in funding. Currently, there are six extension agents for the county, or approximately one for every 97,400 people.
"We always utilized volunteers throughout our history, but I think the role of those volunteers has greatly expanded beyond the 4-H program and then what used to be called the home demonstration units."
The master gardeners, master food volunteers, master naturalists all pitch in on a volunteer basis to help with everything from forestry and conservation to nutrition and cooking. All the masters program volunteers go through extensive training courses given by the extension service.
"I think they're leveraging our manpower to be able to reach a more diversified, larger audience," Patton said. "We need to be in the more suburban areas. I wouldn't say we've done that at the cost of rural farmers, but it's just as the demographics have shifted in the county, we have shifted our resources."
One challenge is serving that population in the information age.
"A lot of information that's out there is out there because of extension, but we don't copyright it. We want people to use it, (but) our identity is lost from that. We know when's the best time to seed because of extension. We know to prune our trees and shrubs because of extension," Patton said. "In some ways, the internet's our competition, but in some ways, I would say the world needs extension more now, because there's no filter on the internet. There's a lot of bad recommendations out there."
Markley agreed. "We're the face of that information. Having that face to that answer sometimes helps." ❖
— Lipoff is a freelance journalist and photographer from Overland Park, Kan. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.