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University of Illinois Extension: 40 years of change
Throughout my career as an Extension Specialist in Agronomy at the University of Illinois, extension has been continually evolving. Some things have stayed the same, but most things have changed to accommodate society in the past 40 years. In 1973, there were 128,000 farmers, but today that number is down to 76,000. Of those, 28,000 farm 97 percent of the cropland. In 1973, many of the farms were grain and livestock operations, whereas today, most large farms are grain. The progressive farmer of today gets information from several sources, but most want information from the individuals doing research on the products or practices they are using. They often come direct to scientists working for public agencies such as USDA and universities.
With the decline in the number of farmers came a major shift in demographics. One in four Illinoisans resided in rural areas in 1973 compared to one in 10 today. These two major shifts in the economy of the state have created new societal problems that require far different research and extension programs to help people help themselves solve problems. For farmers, extension must be alert for changing conditions that could create problems during the growing season and release that information as timely as possible to allow farmers to take corrective actions if necessary. The massive movement of individuals from rural to urban areas has placed pressure on the job market. This is especially true of the market for unskilled workers. In more recent years, the problem has been aggravated by the need for more highly skilled workers in manufacturing.
Fewer farmers means fewer people with a tie back to the farm. Years ago, many city people had relatives still on the farm. As people have become more distant in time with those contacts, more questions are being raised about the quality of the food they are receiving, requiring the delivery of more extension materials to provide facts about food quality and safety.
With 102 counties in the state, most extension specialists would conduct 40 to 50 meetings each winter and another 5 to 10 field days each summer. Assuming one drove the speed limit and worked a 40-hour week, the university paid them to drive a car for about eight weeks to get to each of those meetings. For a period in the 1970s, the speed limit on all roads was 55 mph. This was not a very efficient use of time, but it was the only way we could get the information to the clientele in face-to-face meetings. Traveling on Illinois roads in the winter wasn’t always that safe either. Snowstorms or fog tested one’s ability to gauge where the road was based on the fence posts or power poles in the fence line.
No one had GPS to use in finding the meeting locations. The best way for those in agriculture was to look for a parking lot filled with pick-up trucks. Or if it was around noon, roll down the window and use your nose to find the smell of fried chicken. Not only did we not have GPS, but we didn’t have some of the modern conveniences in the cars we drove. One opened and shut the window with a crank, locked the car with a little button on the door and unlocked it with a key in a slot on the outside of the door. You always hoped that the key was in your pocket or hand when the door went shut and the button was pushed. This was especially true if the car was running, as experienced by one specialist. As the years have progressed, we are now able to deliver lectures into the home or office of clientele live on their computer.
Movie theaters, church basements, church pulpits, VFW halls, machinery sheds, and for me, the ultimate – a sale barn – served as venues for the meetings. The sale barn was the only place I could smell what I was talking about. In more recent years, with the move to regional rather than county meetings, the venue has improved to the use of conference centers, hotels, or community colleges.
Throughout the 1970s to the 1990s, extension specialists compiled a list of hotel/motels and another list of restaurants in the different areas of the state. If you wanted good food, you made sure to stay by one of the recommended eating establishments. As for hotel/motel accommodations, they did vary across the state. The worst example was a room with one light, a bulb hanging from the ceiling in the main room that turned on and off by plugging it into the wall or unplugging. Needless to say that motel never got back on the approved list!
For the first 20 to 25 years of my career, my presentations were done with slides. In the early years, an artist prepared each slide by typing the message on colored paper, photographed it, sent film to Kodak, and upon return, mounted the developed film in slide frame. The whole process took up to 4 weeks to complete. Today a scientist can assemble a slide set in power point on their computer in a matter of hours and be ready to use it in a meeting setting or over the internet to anywhere in the world. A problem that many specialists experienced at least once in their career was to be given a projector with a broken or missing heat lens. Without the heat lens, the light intensity was great enough to melt plastic or break glass slides.
I hope these don’t sound like complaints. I assure you that each of these experiences were a learning lesson and as you might imagine, pretty funny after it was all over. As I visit with young people, I encourage them to find a profession that they have a passion for – such was the case for me. My career allowed me to help people find research-based solutions to help themselves solve their problems. It’s been a very rewarding career.
Looking ahead 40 years seems to be forever, but looking back over the past 40 years seems like yesterday. The changes I have seen have been huge, but they will be miniscule compared to those that will occur in the next 40 years. I believe agriculture has a great future ahead.