Journal of the NACAA
ISSN 2158-9429
Volume 7, Issue 2 - December, 2014


Sowing a Bountiful Harvest: The Methods of Cooperative Extension Service Promotion in Georgia, 1914-1924

Beasley, K.L., Doctoral student in History, Florida State University
Beasley, J.P., Jr., Professor and Head, Department of Crop, Soil and Environmental Sciences, Auburn University


When the Smith-Lever Act passed in 1914, the Cooperative Extension Service focused on convincing the public of its necessity and usefulness in improving farming practices and agriculture. In Georgia, the different “marketing” methods used by the Extension Service in its first decade highlights how farmers and rural families were encouraged to take advantage of the County Agent’s expertise. The challenge for the Extension Service, when illiteracy rates were high and no organized advertising campaign was apparent, is how they could foster trust in scientific farming and convinced Georgians that the benefits offered to farmers and rural homes were crucial to improving agriculture. Research reveals direct, face-to-face contact, in addition to printed material, were the most effective of promotional methods. 


After the passage of the Smith-Lever Act in 1914, the Georgia Cooperative Extension Service focused its efforts on convincing the public of its necessity and usefulness to improve farming practices. During the ten years following its inception, farmers and rural families were encouraged to take advantage of the many opportunities provided by the Extension Service. The question is how this encouragement was circulated to the public, as there is no evidence of an organized advertising campaign, and reaching people in rural areas could be difficult. Illiteracy rates in Georgia for these decades emphasize high rates among the rural population, particularly for ages twenty-one and older—roughly 28% in 1910 and over 21% in 1920 (United States Census Bureau, 2014). An examination of the different historical persuasions used by the Cooperative Extension Service in Georgia during its first decade will highlight its methods in fostering trust in scientific farming.

The newly adopted Extension Service faced a challenge in reaching those who could not read any distributed pamphlets or newsletters. Marketing methods included newspapers, newsletters, and journals. However, conducting in-person demonstrations at county or state fairs, organizing meetings which included meals, and engaging children and youth in farming clubs did more to convince Georgians that the benefits offered to farmers and rural homes were crucial to improving agriculture. Using Georgia as an example for the Extension Service’s efforts highlights how Smith-Lever and the Cooperative Extension Service gained acceptance and trust in ‘progressive’ methods of scientific farming. By the 1930s and 1940s, county extension agents were ubiquitous throughout the country, as evident by Norman Rockwell’s famous Saturday Evening Post print in 1948, The County Agent. The print depicts a county agent demonstrating how to weigh a calf to a young rural girl. Her family watches the demonstration while standing in the background.


The Progressive Era has been called “the golden age of American agriculture.” (The Oxford Companion to United States History, 2001). Agrarian political reform had been a consistent part of the political conversation—“agrarian radicalism had presumably died at the polls in 1896 or been buried under a mound of suffrage restrictions.” (Sanders, 1999). But, this is not necessarily correct: “the problem with this account is that it ignores…the fact that most of the national legislative fruits of the Progressive Era had their unmistakable origins in the agrarian movements of the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s.” (Sanders, 1999). One reason for this lay within Congressional demographics, as members from agricultural regions controlled a high percentage of the House and Senate. Farm production rose in response to demands; while economically successful, more was needed to strengthen the link between farmer and advances in farming techniques. This would hopefully lead to higher yields, profits, and increased supply. The idea of agrarian radicalism stems from an argument of encouraging the use of ‘progressive,’ scientific farming.

The effort to create agricultural schools throughout the 1850s started at the state level in Michigan and Illinois, becoming a national movement when Vermont Representative Justin Morrill lobbied for federal legislation. By July 2, 1862, the Morrill Land-Grant College Act, was enacted; “the dream of a nationwide system of agricultural education was about to become a reality.” (Rasmussen, 1989). This Act resulted in new agricultural and mechanical education-based colleges, with other existing universities receiving “land-grant” status for establishing agricultural or mechanical programs. Those universities are still in existence today, which include Auburn University, the University of Georgia, the University of Florida, Clemson University, North Carolina State University, Virginia Tech, Louisiana State University, New Mexico State University, Rutgers, and the University of Arizona. In the South, Jim Crow laws and segregation affected the Morrill Act funding. The designated land-grant colleges could remain funded as long as separate agricultural and mechanical arts institutions for African American students were provided. These would become known colloquially as the “1890s colleges” and include Florida A&M University, Fort Valley State University in Georgia, Alabama A&M University, Southern University and A&M College in Louisiana, and Lincoln University in Missouri.  

The early years of these new colleges applied practical teaching knowledge, slowly giving way to scientific based research, and expanding, diverse departments. Early “farmer institutes,” the precursor to experiment stations, sporadically appeared, especially in the Midwest (Rasmussen, 1989). Land-grant colleges soon found themselves in need of room for research, which led to the Hatch Act of 1887, which allocated federal funding to land-grant colleges for the purpose of creating agricultural experimental research stations (Hatch Act of 1887). In 1888, Georgia created the first of three experiment stations starting in Griffin, followed by the Tifton-based Coastal Plains Experiment station in 1918, and College Station in Athens (Experiment Stations—CAES Research—UGA, 2014). The experiment stations could only progress so far; despite the combination of experiment stations, land-grant colleges, and Department of Agriculture, more outreach was needed.

In 1908, the Country Life Movement, a late nineteenth century and early twentieth century movement based around rural uplift and modernization of rural lives, encompassed a varied group of middle-class, urban-based, rural-fanatical intellectuals, journalists, businessmen, and rural clergy, led by Liberty Hyde Bailey (Minteer, 2006). Interestingly, it was Bailey who first called for a Cooperative Extension System. Bailey writes, “ Eventually there should be an agricultural agent resident in every county” and the purpose of this agent, according to Bailey “should be to give advice, to keep track of animal and plant diseases and pests and secure the services of experts in their control, to organize conferences, winter-courses, and the like, and otherwise to be to the agricultural affairs what the pastor is to religious affairs and the teacher to educational affairs.” (Bailey, 1911). Extending the Extension Service had been an ongoing debate since the Hatch Act, as a way to further education and other ways to improve farming life with new technologies, information, and creating better efficacy and making “rural life profitable, healthful, comfortable, and attractive.” (Rasmussen, 1989).

The sought-after answer came with the passage of the Smith-Lever Act on May 8, 1914. Hoke Smith, the Democratic Senator and former Governor from Georgia, and Asbury Francis Lever, a Democratic Representative and leader on the Committee of Agriculture from South Carolina, sponsored the Act. In 1913, when the bill was approved, the Columbus Enquirer-Sun published a report from the Associated Press, “The agricultural press and the farmer’s organizations of the country have rallied to the support of Senator Hoke Smith’s agricultural extension bill…those familiar with agricultural extension activities…will appreciate what this proposed law would mean to the farmer.” (“Smith-Lever Bill is Favored by Farmers,” 1913). Dudley M. Hughes, Georgia Representative and later proponent of the Smith-Hughes Act, stated in part while on the floor: “The agricultural bulletins have disseminated much knowledge and information, but…they failed to comprehensively reach the great majority of the farmers who were most in need of practical information. This bill…will revolutionize the agricultural interest of this entire country.” (Smith-Lever Act of 1914: Hearings, Reports, and Debate, 1914). Indiana’s John A.M. Adair also echoed Dudley Hughes: “Let us give it to them, to the end that they may make their farms more productive and farm life more attractive.” (Smith-Lever Act of 1914: Hearings, Reports, and Debate, 1914).

When the Smith-Lever Act was passed, Hoke Smith believed it “the most important Federal legislation he ever sponsored.” (Grantham, Jr., 1967)(Grant, Jr., Spring 1986). President Woodrow Wilson resonated the same feeing when he stated that signing the Act into law was, “one of the most significant and far-reaching measures for the education of adults ever adopted into the government.” (The Public Papers of Woodrow Wilson, 1926). The key component of the Smith-Lever Act is located in section two of the bill:

That cooperative agricultural extension work shall consist of the giving of instruction and practical demonstrations in agriculture and home economics to persons not attending or resident in said colleges in the several communities, and imparting to such persons information on said subjects through field demonstrations, publications, and otherwise; and this work shall be carried on in such manner as may be mutually agreed upon by the Secretary of Agriculture and the State agricultural college or colleges receiving the benefits of this Act (“An Act To provide for cooperative agricultural extension work...”, 1914 ).

This section created the county extension agents and the home demonstration agents. Information and help could be disseminated through county extension agents, where previously, agricultural bulletins were the main sources of information. However, because of illiteracy rates in Georgia, the rural population and farmers could rarely benefit from any bulletins or newsletters. The one-on-one demonstrations and personal interaction were viewed as the keys to reach these particular farmers. This new information system helped farmers learn new agricultural techniques through the introduction of farm instruction. Home demonstration agents, usually college educated women, went into rural homes to help rural families, especially young girls, in “proper” canning, preservation techniques, and sanitary aspects of food preparation and preservation. Now a new issue arose—how to promote the Cooperative Extension Service to farmers and rural families, creating a system of trust in the idea of not just scientific farming, but newer methods to help increase production and yields.

Georgia had a rural population of over 1.4 million residents in 1910 and almost 1.6 million in 1920 (United States Census Bureau, 2014). For those in Georgia who did have access to national publications, one in particular, Colman’s Rural World, a farm periodical published in St. Louis, printed in its November issue: “Experts from the agricultural colleges and county agents, both men and women, are to show farmers and farm women the value of modern methods in agriculture and housekeeping, and demonstrate the use of labor-saving devices.” (“Smith-Lever Act An Educational Measure,” 1914). The September 22, 1915, issue of the Weekly News Letter to Crop Correspondents, a nationally distributed publication from the United States Department of Agriculture, devoted a majority of its issue to discussing the first year success of the Smith-Lever Act: “The results of practical experience and scientific research in agriculture and home economics and securing the practical application of these results through demonstrations and otherwise…these agents have been very successful in winning the support and confidence of the farming people.” (“The Smith-Lever Act: Progress of Extension Work in Agriculture and Home Economics During the First Year,” 1915).

The Weekly News Letter to Crop Correspondents reported on female involvement with the Cooperative Extension Service, highlighting their presence as a promotional aspect. For example, an issue from December 22, 1915 focused on the “400 women county agents” that were “now at work in 15 Southern states.” (“Home Demonstration: Women County Agents Assist Housewives in South in the Solution of Home Problems,” 1915). This number of female county agents/home demonstrators is low, compared to their male counterparts, but the home demonstrators were regarded as equally contributing to improving rural life and families, with their “practical object lessons.” (“Home Demonstration: Women County Agents Assist Housewives in South in the Solution of Home Problems,” 1915). The Weekly News Letter noted, “some very successful demonstrations have been made in cooking, in improving sanitary conditions, in winter gardening, in poultry work, and in home dairying.” (“Home Demonstration: Women County Agents Assist Housewives in South in the Solution of Home Problems,” 1915).

A flurry of articles written and reprinted from other sources appeared in the Macon Daily Telegraph. An article originating from Athens, Georgia, appealed for county and home demonstration agents, stating: “the state of Georgia leads all others in the number of such agents, there being more than seventy at present of men and thirty-five of women…inquiries have been received recently…evidencing a desire to share in the benefits of the Smith-Lever and join other counties of the state already in work.” (“Many Counties Seek Agricultural Agents,” 1915). By 1916, the local articles continued, focusing on expanding the use of the Cooperative Extension Service. In the article, “Farm Extension Work Big Factor in Georgia,” emphasis is once again placed on Georgia’s dominance in Extension work over other states. “Georgia leads all states in the union in many important phases of agricultural work.” (“Farm Extension Work Big Factor in Georgia,” 1916). According to the commentary, this was a direct result of Smith-Lever Act funding and the extension workers/county agents—“no more popular movement has been fostered by legislation in recent years than this of carrying out information to the farmers.” (“Farm Extension Work Big Factor in Georgia,” 1916).

Columbus’s The Enquirer-Sun and The Ledger represent this printed promotion. In October 1917, a substantive article appeared in The Enquirer-Sun, touting “The County Agent—What Can He Do?” The article begins, “No agricultural worker can do more to increase the food production during the present war crisis than the County Agent… His services can be made of great value to the farmers.” (“Safe Farming,” 1917). The final paragraphs call for community support, which extends to state support, and completes an unfaultable picture, meant to evoke trust and accomplishment. The article promotes the idea that every farmer needs to keep their county agent as their friend, for the sake of their yields and profits: “The County Agent who can marshal the greatest force behind him and use each of them to the greatest possible public advantage, will achieve the largest degree of success….that leader should be the County Agent.” (“Safe Farming,” 1917). Residents in the southern states, like Georgia, could read these national accounts of the Cooperative Extension Service’s assistance and benefits in journals and newsletters. However, this did not extend to farmers in rural areas who did not have access to these particular publications and newspapers, or to the experiment stations distributing them. The answer came in the form of one-on-one personal contact, via demonstrations, county and state fairs, and through the youth in different agricultural based clubs.

 The first example of this in-person advertising is illustrated on August 1, 1914. The Macon Daily Telegraph reported  “nearly one thousand men, women, and children, the majority of them farmers and their families, gathered…at one of the best farmer’s rallies ever held in Bibb County,” while barbeque was served (“Most Successful Farmers Rally County Has Known Held At Union High School,” 1914). The article recounts the presence of numerous agricultural agents and home demonstrators, with speeches encouraging crop diversification and other farming educational aspects. With these rallies, particularly as they included the promise of food, the attendees were more receptive to the discussion of advanced farming techniques and scientific information. In July 1915, the Columbus Ledger announced that “Farmers Held Big Meeting at Gentian.” The article recounted the farmer’s meeting, which included a dinner of “Georgia raised foods,” prompting a big attendance of about three hundred farmers. The speakers included professors, discussing the role of the county agent and issues concerning cattle and crops: “A number of speakers from the agricultural college at Athens were present and addressed the audience on matters to all…these men’s talks were well received…the meeting was a success in every manner and it is believed that much good will result.” (“Farmers Held Big Meeting at Gentian,” 1915). The dinner aspect of the meeting increased attendance and created a sense of trust between farmer and agent. During the food and lecture meetings, farmers were encouraged to contact a county agent and seek more information in modernizing their farming operation.

Barbeque became a popular dinner at farmer’s meetings. In Moultrie, Georgia, “the big livestock rally, land clearing demonstration and big free barbeque” was expected to bring in 5,000 attendees, the majority of them farmers, along with rural residents and businessmen from Colquitt County, and all south Georgia-based county agents. The county agent for Colquitt County was in charge of the rally, which included entertainment, in addition to the demonstration and other agricultural events (“Farm Rally at Moultrie. Preparations Made to Feed 5,000 People at Barbecue at Noon,” 1920). In Dawson, Georgia, a farm machinery/farm implement demonstration, with the local county agent lecture presentation, featured a barbeque lunch. According to the article, farm machinery companies, different lectures concerning updated farm machinery and crop rotation were featured at this well-attended event; “it is believed that the farmers of this county are awakening to the need of labor saving machinery in farm work.” (“Demonstration Day is Held at Dawson Number of Farmers See the Machinery at Work,” 1914). This combination of food, or in this case, the promise of barbeque, with the farm machinery demonstration impacted more farmers than reading a pamphlet or newsletter about the same subject. The ‘hands-on’ involvement and participation created a sense of trust in the county agent and in his promotion of scientific farming.

Basket dinners were a common trend among these types of rallies and meetings, which meant the county agent could interact with a higher number of attendees. This meant farmers had better access to information, as it were in-person meetings. In The Macon Daily Telegraph, it was announced by the Extension agent in Johnson County that the Fourth of July’s farmer’s rally in Idlewild was ready, including agricultural based speeches and the “basket dinner.” The rally was expected to attract “four to six thousand people.” (“Big Rally at Idlewild,” 1918) Chattahoochee County followed in the same vein with a scheduled farmer’s institute meeting at a local school, which included information from the county agent, the local home demonstration agent and agriculture professors. Also, “all farmers, with their wives and children, are requested to attend this meeting and bring well-filled dinner baskets.” (“Institute be Held at Harmony Thursday,” 1916)

In the Report of the Director of the Office of Experiment Stations for 1915, under the report on extension work in Georgia, it states county agents were involved in “field meetings, farmers’ institutes, movable schools, and educational exhibits at State and county fairs.” (Report of the Director of the Office of Experiment Stations for the Year Ended June 30, 1915, 1916). The interaction between the county agents and farmers in Georgia, listed in the report under “farmers visited by agents,” numbered 80,240 (Report of the Director of the Office of Experiment Stations for the Year Ended June 30, 1915, 1916). Demonstrations including the proper way to use lime, field meetings, and crop demonstrations were recorded, indicating a high successful rate for the one-on-one contact between the agents and farmers (Report of the Director of the Office of Experiment Stations for the Year Ended June 30, 1915).

County fairs and state fairs became other methods by which the Cooperative Extension Service could gain support from farmers and rural families. An article on October 12, 1919, in the Macon Daily Telegraph devoted a whole page to the different county fairs around the state, declaring, “Fair days have arrived…Georgia people who don’t realize what the State is doing in agricultural and livestock lines, to say nothing of the activity of girls’ and boys’ clubs, working under the direction of the county agents, will find at any of the fairs a lesson worth going many miles to learn” and that “Diversification of farm products is something being done and not talked about in Georgia, to judge by the exhibits at fairs already held.” (“County Fair Days Have Arrived: Diversification Proves Success Progress of Georgia is Told in Exhibits,” 1919). Across southern Georgia, the county fairs advertised agricultural based exhibits and demonstrations, youth club exhibits, and county agent involvement. Soon, Early County and Cook County, both South Georgia counties, reported high attendance at their individual fairs, which had been partially organized by the county agents, highlighted new agricultural practices, exhibits, and demonstrations (“Calls First Cook Fair One of Best Ten-Months-Old County Stages Remarkable Exposition at Adel,” 1919) (“Early County Fair a Great Success,” 1919).

By using meetings and rallies that included a free meal, county agents and the Cooperative Extension Service were able to reach out to more farmers. For farmers who did not have access to publications, either by distance or illiteracy, these meetings had a two-fold result. First, the county agent could reach the farmer, disseminating new scientific farming methods or other yield production information by personal contact. This created a bond of trust and reliance on the county agent, particularly for a farmer who might be leery of attempting newer agricultural techniques. Today’s county agents, including Thomas County’s Andrew Sawyer, believes in this early importance of the Cooperative Extension System and county agents: “…in those days, the extension agent had to just about help the farmer with every little detail—from running a tractor to seed depth and pest issues.” (A. Sawyer, personal communication, March 13, 2014).

Another way by which the Cooperative Extension Service tried to reach out was through the rural youth. For the first few years, the Extension Service and county agents relied heavily on word of mouth to reach farmers; by involving the youth, the Extension Service found a way to teach the parents new skills—through the youth. They thought if they could teach the boys and girls how to grow healthy tomatoes and corn, for example, how to properly take care of cows, how to care for a farm, and so on, their parents would also learn the techniques and maybe come to trust the county agent for other information. The 1914-1915 Report of the Director of the Office of Experiment Stations states 2,900 schools were visited and involvement for the various youth clubs totaled close to 16,000 boys and girls (Report of the Director of the Office of Experiment Stations, 1916). These clubs included the boys’ Corn clubs and “Four-crop club,” which required the boys enrolled to grow and rotate four different crops on three acres of land, and the girls’ home demonstration and canning clubs (Report of the Director of the Office of Experiment Stations, 1916). The results of these clubs, showcasing the success of farming projects, were normally held at county fairs and as exhibits in other county meetings, all under the direction and guidance of the county agent.

As a result of increased youth participation, rural parents could become involved in their projects. The county agent and Cooperative Extension Service could introduce a previously resistant farmer to a more modern, scientific change. This occurred with home demonstration agents and young girls. The young girls learned how to utilize sanitary canning processes and, in some instances, learned to solder the seals on the cans (Canned Goods for the Greater Good in Georgia, 2014). Girls learned to grow their own food; when processing their food for preservation, they used the new, scientific techniques taught by the home demonstration agents and county agents, which were then passed on to rural women (Canned Goods for the Greater Good in Georgia, 2014) (Rasmussen, 1989). By using youth as a way to demonstrate new advancements in scientific farming, the Cooperative Extension Service could reach their parents, who may or may not have been receptive to the county agents’ progressive ministrations. This aspect of youth involvement still continues to this day, in the form of 4-H clubs.

Several conclusions can be drawn from the national and state pronunciations of the ‘overwhelming success’ and ‘modernizing of farm life,’ fostered by the Smith-Lever Act and the Cooperative Extension Service. The marketing of the Act, particularly in Georgia, with its emphasis on the necessity of rural life involvement, illustrates that the county agents, home demonstration agents, and the Extension Service, were making a difference in farmer’s lives with the progressive idea of scientific farming. Because of illiteracy and lack of access, in-person contact between the county agents and farmers, along with encouraging youth involvement, were ways to include and reach out to farmers and the rural population unable to benefit from the printed medium.

Highlighting statistics of better crop yields and profits, pest management, and their ability to disseminate new scientific techniques, among other responsibilities, is designed to resonate with the information-hungry farmer, giving him the ability to practice soil-saving crop rotation or boll-weevil eradication, with the knowledge offered by the educated county agent. Rural women could now learn the ‘proper’ methods of the kitchen, from college-educated, legitimatized agents. Connecting farmers and rural families with formal agricultural education encouraged the idea of scientific farming and trusting in new, progressive techniques.

Today, the Cooperative Extension Service is fundamental for farmers, involved with marketing 4-H, protection for consumers, and contributes to research, among its purposes (University of Georgia Extension, 2014). Plant pathologist for the University of Georgia, Dr. Robert C. Kemerait also expressed his opinion about the Cooperative Extension Service, by stating:

I believe that UGA Cooperative Extension plays a mission-critical role to producers in Georgia by providing research-based, non-biased recommendations to growers.  Cooperative extension alone supports growers and makes recommendations without need to profit from those recommendations and without fear of the "popular" recommendation.  Additionally, Cooperative Extension will seek to develop opportunity for growers to improve productivity, even when such efforts bring direct benefit only to the growers (e.g., Peanut Rx). Cooperative Extension is perhaps one of the most important factors that allows the continued existence of family owned farming operations. Without Extension, improved production practices to include all agronomics practices would be lost (R. Kemerait, personal communication, March 24, 2014).

Agriculture in the state of Georgia is as important today as it was in the 1910s. Not only is it a major contributor to the state’s economy, it is a crucial player in the world’s food supply (Georgia Farm Bureau—About Georgia Agriculture, 2014). Also, agriculture is a source of employment for farmers, crop-specific specialists, agronomists, pathologists, entomologists, agricultural economists, and geneticists, to name a few. There is another aspect of the Georgia agricultural industry that has had the greatest impact at the local county level, however. This is the county-based information delivery system through county agents, which continues to be a vital informational link for farmers. It helped establish home demonstration agents, who provided training and educational opportunities for rural women, and who continue to impact rural families across Georgia and the United States today. Sawyer states, “Today, more information is available and farmers have knowledge, but agents are involved in updates and research.” (A. Sawyer, personal communication, March 13, 2014).


In Georgia, as in other states, encouraging farmers and rural families to utilize the Cooperative Extension Service after its creation in 1914 was the priority for the new system.  This was a time when there was no organized media campaign, and there were limited ways to reach people in the rural areas. Newspapers and reports increased support, but for a state with a high rural illiteracy rate, this meant an extra effort to reach out to farmers and their families. The Cooperative Extension Service was taking the evolution of modern agriculture to the people, reaching the public with innovative advertising techniques that continue as a part of the agricultural landscape today. 

Literature Cited

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