Mississippi was one of several states where the efforts of agricultural reformers led to the passage of the Smith-Lever Act of 1914, which established a federal program for agricultural extension work. Educator Seaman Knapp of Iowa conceived the idea of starting farms that would literally demonstrate new agricultural techniques and the benefits farmers would gain from them. Knapp encouraged Mississippi and other states to start demonstration services, funded first by the General Education Board of the Rockefeller Foundation and then by the US Department of Agriculture.
The emphasis on teaching distinguished agricultural extension work from agricultural experiment stations, which had originated after the 1888 Hatch Act at Mississippi Agricultural and Mechanical College (now Mississippi State University) in Oktibbeha County. Stations then followed in Newton, Marshall, and Washington Counties.
Beginning in 1905, Mississippi agricultural extension agents focused on staple crops, particularly cotton, but within five years had moved on to a wide range of innovations. By 1911 at least fifteen hundred Mississippi farmers were enrolled in extension programs in fifty counties. William H. Smith, the superintendent of schools in Holmes County, started the first boys’ corn club in the state (and possibly the country), followed shortly by a home study club for girls. Pig clubs, poultry clubs, and tomato clubs began to meet within the next few years.
Despite opposition from some white Mississippians, the federal government’s plan for agricultural extension work included African Americans. The first Negro Extension agent was J. A. Booker, working in Mound Bayou and other parts of the Delta. The Smith-Lever Act, first proposed in 1911, took advantage of this sort of club-building enthusiasm by offering a permanent structure and some federal funds. The bill the US Congress passed in 1914 required agricultural colleges to work with the US Department of Agriculture and provided ten thousand dollars to each participating state with the promise of steady increases to be matched by local and state governments.
One of the first beneficiaries of the Smith-Lever Act was Mississippi Agricultural and Mechanical College, which became the center for extension work and energetically took on the goal of teaching farmers and rural residents about innovations in agriculture and farm life.
The Extension Service quickly became a force, following national trends and having agents provide instruction in new techniques on demonstration farms and in demonstration homes. By the 1930s at least one agent worked in each of the state’s counties, often providing both agricultural and home demonstrations. In 1937 the Extension Service employed 131 agricultural demonstration workers and 115 home demonstration workers, 61 of whom worked for the Negro Extension service.
The Extension Department tried to combine practical and sometimes scientific advice for farmers with more specific suggestions about architecture, community life, and finance, with early bulletins featuring articles on such topics as “Growing Hogs in Mississippi,” “Dairy Barn Construction,” “Grasses and Forage Plants,” “Practical Spraying for Practical Orchardists,” “Helps for Mississippi Poultry Raisers,” “Spraying in Mississippi,” “The Mississippi Community Congress,” “Catalog for Farm Building Plans,” “The Terrace in Mississippi,” and “Farm Plans for Using Borrowed Capital.” Subsequent bulletins also dealt a great deal with cotton and agricultural diversity and by the 1920s with canning and sewing.
The Extension Service continues to have its home at Mississippi State University and issues bulletins through the outreach program MSUCares. Reports have become shorter, with more illustrations and fewer scientific discussions. Recent topics reflect a growing interest in landscaping, intensified concerns about conservation, and Mississippi’s growing multiculturalism (“4-H Te Necesita”), as well as a continuing focus on using the latest scientific knowledge to expand agricultural production. A recent director’s letter emphasizes both continuity and novelty: “Our goal has always been to improve the quality of life for every Mississippian,” though extension work now involves “cell phones, distance learning, video conferencing, sophisticated computer networks, [and] digital imaging diagnostics.”
- Annual Reports of Cooperative Extension Work in Agriculture and Home Economics (1916–20, 2000–2010)
- Roy Vernon Scott, The Reluctant Farmer: The Rise of Agricultural Extension to 1914 (1971)