In 1862, while America was in the throes of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Act. Senator Justin Morrill, the act’s namesake, seized upon an incredible opportunity in the midst of our nation’s division: The opportunity to provide the people of our nation with a practical education in agriculture and the mechanical arts.

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Ashley Thompson

Prior to this act, higher education was inaccessible to the masses and focused predominantly on what Morrill called “the sedentary professions,” such as law and medicine. Morrill thought the American agricultural system was in serious disarray and believed that the economic wellbeing of our industrializing nation demanded that folks obtain an education in agriculture and the mechanical arts.

Thus, each state set aside 30,000 acres of land that would be sold or used to establish universities for the people. Farmers and faculty at Land-Grant Universities quickly recognized the need for agricultural research targeting the needs of specific regions. Farmers were demanding evidence that Land-Grant Universities were truly invested in meeting their needs. At the same time, agricultural professors could not answer many of the complex questions farmers were asking. Science-based agricultural knowledge was rudimentary, and more research was needed to answer tough questions and solve difficult problems.

In order to meet these demands, 13 Land-Grant Universities built research and demonstration farms. The necessity of similar experiment stations across the United States was apparent to Congressman William Hatch. In 1887, he penned the Hatch Act, which provided states with funding to support the establishment of agricultural experiment stations. Although experiment stations were conducting important research, they were not disseminating information to the populace in an accessible manner. In 1914, the Smith-Lever Act aimed to translate cutting-edge research discoveries into actionable practices in the field through the establishment of cooperative extension services. 

As a scientist and an extension agent, the Smith-Lever Act is a favorite of mine because it created an organization of specialists with the intent of enhancing the lives of farmers, homemakers and youth by improving the accessibility of peer reviewed research. The information extension provided was, and still is, fact-based and region specific. Cooperative extension services forms a crucial link between Land-Grant Universities, agriculture experiment stations, and the public. To provide this service, cooperative extension services continue to rely upon funding from federal, state, and county entities.

Oregon State University, Oregon’s Land-Grant University, was established in 1868. Forty-five years later, the Mid-Columbia Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Hood River opened its doors with the goal of providing research-based solutions to the problems faced by fruit tree growers in Hood River and the surrounding counties. Approximately 80 years ago, the people of Oregon recognized the demand for extension services in Hood River County, giving birth to Hood River County Cooperative Extension.

The goal of the Hood River County Extension Service is to offer residents of Hood River County affordable education that strengthens our local community and economy, sustains natural resources and promotes a healthy community.

My work and research in Hood River continues the rich tradition of agricultural extension. I provide fruit tree producers with research-based information and hands-on demonstrations to improve their farming practices.

For me, agricultural extension was a deep calling to preserve and enhance farming through the communication of research to farmers and robust on farm trials. My extension program focuses on pear and cherry production, and my applied research program emphasizes improving plant nutrition and soil health for long-term orchard sustainability. Rachel Suites, our small farms extension agent, offer programing such as monthly Crop Talks and workshops to support our small farmers and improve the resilience of our food systems.

Rachel is in charge of another important and highly recognizable program, Master Gardeners. Master Gardeners provide numerous learning and volunteer opportunities for our community, including plant disease diagnostics through the plant clinic and a garden-based cooking class called Seed to Supper. This past year, Master Gardeners volunteered over 3,800 hours to improve life in Hood River County.

Another highly recognizable traditional program offered through Hood River County extension is 4-H youth development, which offers K-12 students the opportunity to develop essential skills for life, leadership, career, and community food systems.

To strengthen our diverse community, Hood River County Extension has embraced more than just “cows and ploughs.” Extension Agent Lauren Kraemer is building family and community health though nutrition education and the Food Hero Campaign, Strong Women Strength Training Programs, master food preserver volunteer certification, food safety and preservation classes and disaster preparedness. Glenn Ahrens, extension forester, supports woodland owners, communities, and industry in natural resource management through sustainable timber research, technical support, and expert advice. In addition, Hood River Extension trains community members as Master Naturalists, who learn to enhance public awareness of Oregon’s natural resources through conservation education, scientific inquiry, and stewardship activities. Our Open Campus Coordinator, Ann Harris, offers students across the county opportunity to improve their college and career readiness though the Open Campus and Juntos program. Both of these programs are available to all youth from middle school through community college, including our Latinx families.

I sincerely invite you to join one or more of our extension programs to help build a robust community for the future.

Ashley A. Thompson, Ph.D., is assistant professor of horticulture at the Fruit Tree Extension Faculty in Wasco and Hood River counties.

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