Illinois might have been known for growing clover and cranberries rather than corn and soybeans if farmers in the early 1900s hadn't followed recommendations from University of Illinois Extension agents to apply lime to the state's highly acidic soil. Demonstrations at agricultural experiment stations and on farmers' fields across the state showing the benefits of using lime as a soil additive convinced farmers to use lime to balance the pH, making it possible to produce abundant crops of corn, soybeans, alfalfa, and other pH-sensitive plants.
"Lime is made of calcium carbonate, which is also an ingredient in cement, so farmers feared using it. They thought it would make the soil hard," said Robert Hoeft, U of I Director of Extension in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences.
According to Hoeft, the use of lime is just one example from the past 100 years of the value of Extension whose mission is to bring research-based information to the public. Hybrid corn was another example. "The process to produce hybrid corn was created by university scientists and passed on to companies to grow and market the seed to farmers.
Extension played a large part in getting farmers to adopt the use of hybrid seed by establishing demonstration plots in farmers' fields. Planting these demonstration plots near well-traveled roads gave farmers the opportunity to visit them to observe the difference in disease pressure and ultimately yield between open-pollinated and hybrid corn," Hoeft said.
In the mid-1930s, many farm families, unlike their city neighbors did not have access to electricity. The combined effort of county Extension staff and local citizens to create rural electric cooperatives eventually brought electricity to all of rural America.
In later years, Extension also assisted local leadership in organizing rural water systems. Today Extension staff members are working with companies to expand high-speed Internet systems to rural areas.
Although Extension's roots are in the rural agricultural community, Hoeft said it has spread to urban areas of the state. "Major efforts are being expended to improve the diets of Illinois residents in both rural and urban areas-diets that will help reduce health problems associated with obesity, including diabetes and heart disease," he said.
Hoeft said that food deserts-areas in which people do not have access to a full-service grocery store-are problematic in both rural and urban settings. "Often they lack transportation to the store," he said.
One way Extension is addressing the problem in the East St. Louis area is to lease a bus one day per month to transport people from the food desert area to a grocery store, providing them education on the way to the store about how to buy healthy food.
"On the trip back, Extension specialists provide education on how to process and store the food that they bought," Hoeft said. "Without this program, many of these people would have to purchase groceries in a convenience store that doesn't carry fresh fruits and vegetables.
There are also some rural counties where people have to drive 60 miles to get to a grocery store. They have to shop at gas station convenience stores. We're trying to address that problem," Hoeft said.
The number of specialists per county may be fewer today than in the 1980s, but technology has allowed Extension to adapt and increase its reach. Demonstrations are still an important component, but now they can be distributed via the Internet, Hoeft said.
"Today people want information faster," he said. "Extension's farmdoc website and its new mobile app is an example of how Extension responded to farmers so that they can get information when and where they want it.
With a webinar, we can take a presentation or demonstration right into their home. People can watch it at their leisure or if they watch it while it's being broadcast live, they can type a question and get an answer from the presenter in real time."
Hoeft calls today's Extension specialists rock stars. "We just need more of them to be able to listen to the public and find out their needs so that we can conduct research to address those problems," he said.
"Right now about 10 percent of our faculty in the College of ACES have an Extension component to their position. We're working with other colleges at U of I and other agencies to bring their expertise to our audiences," he said.
Extension units throughout Illinois are currently celebrating the 100-year anniversary of the 1914 signing of the Smith-Lever Act that established cooperative extension services. A centralized interactive website has been created with photos, Extension highlights, a 100-years game, and Pinterest accounts.
The site welcomes people to upload photos and comments to help document the 100-year legacy of University of Illinois Extension. Visit web.extension.illinois.edu/100yrs.
"Those who were active in those first years of Extension in 1914 would be amazed at where we are today," Hoeft said. "And I can't begin to envision where we'll be 100 years from now.