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100 years of University of California Extension Service

Michael Joyce/JPR

This week the University of California is celebrating the 100-year anniversary of its agricultural extension program. The UC Cooperative Extension serves all 58 California counties. But the very first county to get on board was Humboldt.

Dennis Leonardi: “My grandfather raised a family on 18 cows, my dad raised a family on 60 cows, and it takes me 400.”

Dennis Leonardi is a third-generation dairyman farming 300 acres tucked between Ferndale and the Eel River. In many ways his operation typifies the roughly 60 dairies in the area: family run and multi-generational. Many date back to 1913 when Humboldt County opened the state’s first extension department, nearly a year before Woodrow Wilson signed the national program into law.

At that time the United States was still very agrarian and the challenge was clear: how to get the latest agricultural research from the newly established land-grant universities into the hands of those who needed it most.

Yana Valachovic: “About 30 percent of us were farmers in 1913 and today less than 1 percent of us are farmers.”

Yana Valachovic is director of the Humboldt County Cooperative Extension office.

Yana Valachovic: “You know we are a 100-year-old organization and many people wonder are we still relevant today. And, in fact, we are. We are still founded on the same principles of extending the information and knowledge from the universities to the communities we serve, and then taking their problems and working on them locally or taking them back to the university. That whole concept is still on par with who we were and who we are.”

Dennis Leonardi: “Who provides independent, unbiased, objective research data for free?”

Dennis Leonardi says extension passes his litmus test: ‘Is it practical and do I trust it?’

Dennis Leonardi: “I just selected a variety of alfalfa to plant. So I went through and look at all the varieties that are fitted to this region. Where did all of my information come from when I got to the research data? It came from UC field trials. They put this data together so I could use it.”

Jeff Stackhouse joined the Humboldt extension office last year as a livestock and natural resources advisor. He agrees with Leonardi that ag research should ultimately be useful to farmers.

Jeff Stackhouse: “What’s cool about this job is that everything I do has relevance to at least one or more producers immediately. So once I find an answer I get on the phone and say ‘Hey. You know that question you asked me a month or two ago? I think I got it figured out’. And that relationship is invaluable to me.”

Stackhouse says he learns as much from the farmers as they do from him. He also says he’s honored by how many producers give him access to their herds for his ongoing research.

Although Humboldt may not be one of the state’s top producing agricultural counties, California is the fifth largest supplier of food and agricultural commodities in the world. Despite this, Dennis Leonardi knows farmers - and ag-driven programs like extension - are easily taken for granted.

Dennis Leionardi: “If I was President of the United States I would be very concerned that my population is being fed by less than 1-percent and how much we rely on imported food.”

And YanaValachovic thinks this is another key reason why - in our increasingly urbanized society - agricultural extension is just as valuable now as it was a century ago.

Yana Valachovic: “Neutral, science-based information, problem-solving: that’s what we are about. And without independence science you don’t get quality answers. And I think more and more everybody wants an independent view on information. And we have invested in extension to provide that, and that’s just as relevant today as it was in the past.”

There are three land-grant universities on the West Coast. Washington State University - like UC - established its extension program in 1913. Oregon Agricultural College - now OSU - was in 1911.