Norman Rockwell's iconic 1948 painting "County Agent" depicts a county extension agent teaching a young 4-H member how to weigh her Guernsey project cow as several generations of family onlookers join in the educational experience, including cats, chickens and the family dog and horses. For 100 years the extension service has provided valuable education to agriculturalists, families and communities based on university-driven research and experience. As with any science, as our knowledge increases, our practices change to accommodate new knowledge. Extension serves as a bridge between demonstrated best practices and the public. That, in a nutshell, is why the Smith Lever Act was created, and why extension exists.
Washington State University originally was named the Washington State Agricultural College and School of Science. It was created in 1892 as the state land-grant university. Since the WSU Whatcom County Extension doors opened in 1917, current and aspiring farmers have relied upon the knowledge-base of the land-grant university. The local xxtension office in Bellingham is the front door to the entire university, offering the public a wealth of knowledge and experience.
Our commercial agriculture program works through field-based research to improve the agricultural economy in Whatcom County. We do this through collaboration with farmers and researchers to identify problems and seek practical solutions. Information is then disseminated through written materials, workshops/conferences, field tours and web-based resources. Since 1917, just six agricultural agents have worked in Whatcom County, continuing the long-standing tradition of connecting the land-grant university with local farmers. Our end goal is to help farmers help themselves.
This program has many on-going efforts that have led to positive impacts on our agricultural sector. We assist small, fruit-industry farmers with managing costly pests such as spotted wing drosophila, seed-borne pests for the seed potato industry, or weeds on organic farms. Feed costs represent a large portion of production costs for all livestock producers. Since 2009, we have been evaluating new varieties of traditional feed crops and alternative feed sources to help chip away at those costs. To secure our food system into the future, we also offer classes for new and beginning farmers and provide one-on-one technical assistance that helps ensure the viability of the next generation of our food producers. Previous efforts have supported the dairy industry, helping to transform by-product of the anaerobic digestion process of dairy manure into a valuable potting medium and electricity. Working across generations, to introduce innovations and improvements to each new generation of farmers, is also a part of the extension mission, and is carried out in part by the 4-H youth development program.
4-H began as the Boys and Girls Club in the late 1800s, and transitioned to 4-H around the same time that xxtension was born. Youth education has always been a key element of the land-grant university mission. In Whatcom County our 4-H program volunteers educate young people about many facets of agriculture and animal husbandry. Our youth gain strong skills of responsibility and entrepreneurship through their animal projects. Many 4-H youth will attest to early mornings in the barn before school and hours at the end of the day, engaged in animal care, be it dairy cows, beef, swine, horses, chickens or dogs. They learn a great deal about veterinary science as part and parcel of caring for their animals, and through strict record keeping, and junior livestock auctions (such as the one that will take place at the Northwest Washington Fair), they learn a great deal more about producing and selling quality animals. 4-H youth also learn from an early age how to assess differences in quality between animals, and how to present themselves publically. As the century has advanced, so have project interests. 4-H projects have grown to include food preservation, canning and cooking, clothing making, arts and crafts, domestic animals and mechanical sciences. Whatever the interests of the youth, they are matched to caring adults who volunteer their time to create a safe space of belonging and identity for our members. Whatcom County 4-H currently serves about 1,200 club youth in 50 different clubs. As the world changes, so does 4-H. 4-H is an organization that prepares young people for success in today's changing world, and those changes can be challenging.
Changes in agricultural practices and climate change are not the only changes young leaders of tomorrow will have to grapple with; indeed for many, such issues are not even on their radar. Dwindling fresh water and oil supplies will create a different kind of world that must rely on scientific innovations to sustain our natural resources. The privatization of liquor sales and legalization of marijuana have created new cultural land-mines for teens to navigate. Schools continue an uphill battle to deal with bullying and gun violence. This is definitely not Beaver Cleaver's America.
4-H youth development offers an incredibly wide number of opportunities with the vision of helping young people become productive citizens who are engaged in positive change, meeting the needs of a diverse and changing society. Our 4-H teens are planning a districtwide teen rally this fall emphasizing positive prevention strategies to avoid drugs and alcohol. Our adventure program has been training challenge facilitators in schools for several decades, striving to help young people create educational climates of cooperation and shared value. National 4-H has channeled millions of dollars into science, technology, engineering and mathematics education, and 4-H supports project work in everything from robots to balancing checkbooks. Our Whatcom County website hosts an online natural resource stewardship curriculum designed specifically to the issues of the Pacific Northwest.
Within 4-H, the introduction of new ideas are not delivered strictly "from the university down to the volunteer to the youth." The development of new ideas are frequently encouraged jointly, youth leadership and voice are valued. By building change with our volunteers, though council and advisory systems, we frequently discover the most feasible and efficient ways of introducing difficult change into the community. Extension's volunteers serve in a valuable partnership, a sounding board of the public's receptivity to accommodate new ideas, and a taskforce for dispersing new knowledge. This may not be evident as you wander through the barns of the Lynden Fairgrounds, but change is everywhere.
The Northwest Washington Fair will begin on Aug. 11 in Lynden and celebrates the rich agricultural heritage of this area. As you walk around the fair you will see many examples of the deep connection that extension has had with the agricultural community over the past 100 years. Come join us at our booth on Wednesday, Aug. 6, at 1 p.m. underneath the grandstand to celebrate 100 years and tell us about your extension connection.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Michael Wallace, 4-H extension educator and Bellingham resident, has served as a youth development faculty for over 13 years. Agriculture Extension Specialist Chris Benedict lives in Bellingham and leads the commercial agriculture and community horticulture programs.