Mar 18, 2012

Part One – Early Technology in Extension – Grains, Trains, and E.L. Luther’s Motorcycle

Part One – Early Technology in Extension – Grains, Trains, and E.L. Luther’s Motorcycle

I’ve always enjoyed reading history.  Two highlights of my adult life occurred at the University of Minnesota where I first had the chance to meet historian Steven Ambrose, author of "Undaunted Courage"(an exciting and detailed historical account of the Lewis and Clark expedition).  A couple years later, it was David McCollough, author of the stirring account of the American Revolution titled "1776."

But, I’ve never made time to read the historical details connected to any of my workplaces – past or present, until this year’s centennial celebration of UW-Extension’s Cooperative Extension division. This piece and the couple that will follow are based in part on a 2002 book by Jerry Apps titled "The People Came First: a History of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension."

After reading and reviewing some of these accounts, it has made me think about  how the innovation and excitement that moved so many people to action in the early 1900s fits today’s vision for outreach and extension work.  I am particularly interested in how the technology and innovation of the first couple decades of the 1900s compares with where we’re at in 2012.

E.L. Luther of Oneida County - 1912
Many have been fascinated to read the accounts of E.L. Luther, the first Extension Agent or “county agricultural representative” in Wisconsin.  Mr. Luther started his work in 1912 in Oneida County, working out of Rhinelander, the county seat.  Luther was hired to connect the land-grant university in Madison to the people and communities.  Especially intriguing is the fact that Luther was provided with an Indian brand, two-cylinder motorcycle that he used to travel throughout the sandy roads of the county working directly with farmers, conducting educational meetings, and connecting educational resources within the county. 

Ernest Leonard Luther has become our traveling “mascot” in 2012 as we celebrate the Extension Centennial with a life-size cutout display of him and his motorcycle which is traveling throughout the state. The black and white cutout has also become a bit of a meme for us these last couple months representing all of the great attributes of the “Wisconsin Idea.” 

Even before E.L.’s entry onto the scene, big things were happening. It is enlightening to look at the progression of technology from the early/mid 1800’s to Luther’s work a few decades later.  In the mid 1800’s, relatively little had happened in the U.S. from an agricultural science perspective.  Most of what happened on a Midwestern farm in 1850 happened because of knowledge and experience passed down through the generations, and much of that information had moved from Europe to the U.S. over a century.

Lots happened after the 1850s. President Lincoln signed Land Grant Bill (Morrill Act) in 1862 (we are also recognizing the 150th year of the Land Grant act this year).  In 1866, The University of Wisconsin at Madison became the formal recipient of the federal land-grant.  In the 1860s through the 80s much of the new knowledge from the University and the College was conveyed within the walls of traditional classrooms, but also through the mail via letters and in magazines and other print pieces such as the Wisconsin Farmer or the Racine Agriculturist.  Another favorite was Hoards Dairyman which began in 1885.  Researchers and educators in the University of Wisconsin’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences and Extension are still regularly cited by these same magazines more than 125 years later.

The College continued its growth and outreach into the communities of Wisconsin in the 1880s.  In 1885 and 86, “Farmers’ Institutes” were held in more than two dozen counties statewide. In the first decade of the 1900s (1904 and 05), the College began to offer railroad “trains” as an important technology-transfer mechanism to reach out and extend the resources of the Madison campus to more in the state.  There were three trains – the Seed Special, Potato Train, and Livestock Special that made their way to areas of the state. The train cars contained teaching demos, animals, and devices used to improve agricultural productivity and efficiency.  There would also be one or more cars for faculty/staff.  Obviously, the livestock train required staff to transport feed and water.  Additional help was required to care for the horses, cattle and other animals that moved from town to town. These trains would be greeted with great enthusiasm.  At most stops,1000 or more people would participate in the educational offerings.

It was an exciting time for those who were beginning to research and teach about important agricultural and food system issues.  Wisconsin was continuing its transformation from being one of the leading wheat and grain producing states to one where dairy and cheese production would ultimately create major shifts in local economies.  These early seeds grew into what is now a $26 billion dairy industry – the largest single part of the state’s overall $60 billion ag sector.

In 1908, Dean Russell of the College reported that there were 12 “stenographers” on staff, helping get 45,000 letters written each year along with more than 20,000 manuscripts and 102,000 “mimeograph sheets” that were sent out to fulfill requests made by the state’s residents.

In his work out in Oneida County, nearly 200 miles from Madison, E.L. Luther saw similar needs and demands. In the months that followed his establishment as the state’s first Agent, Luther and another colleague reported having 27 educational meetings with almost 3,000 people in attendance.  They also wrote and mailed out 400 letters, and more than 300 people stopped by to see Luther for informal consultation and advice.

Compare all of these facts and conditions in 1912 from Jerry App’s book to those we face today.  How do they compare?  Was life really a lot more easy and simple back in the “old days?”  How did the daily worklife of an early Extension Agent in 1912 compare with our work in 2012?  What about the work of the writers and editors at places like Hoard’s Dairyman? How about the farmers and rural residents that Luther served?

I think about the number of people who I connect with in a day.  Like most people involved in Extension or other agricultural communication or outreach work, I will receive 125 or more emails in a day.  I’ll probably respond to the 30 or 40 that require a direct response and quickly review the rest.  In a given day, I might meet with three or four groups or individuals.  On a night like last night, I might give a talk to 50 or 60 people and speak about the latest challenges and solutions to issues we face in agriculture.  

Many of us now keep connected to some of the key agricultural leaders and media contacts around the state using social media like Twitter where a single message can be seen by four or five hundred people and magnified one-hundredfold if you say something profound.  I am not suggesting that this is all “good.”  There are times that I look at my bloated inbox and wonder what historians will write about the work of our generation 100 years from now! 

Are our daily “interactions” as deep and meaningful as those of Mr. Luther?  I have a sneaking suspicion that the answer is “no.”  But, we do live in a different world today with shorter attention spans.  The volume of new information and knowledge that gets created in a single month today exceeds that of ALL information and knowledge that existed on earth in 1912. I have more computing power in my little smart phone than existed in all of NASA in the late 1960s as they were working to get the first astronautsto and from the moon. We live in a world of sound bites and data bytes.  I do believe that the work of Extension and the University as well as others charged with communicating about things like agriculture and positive change in 2012 is still firmly grounded on personal relationships, trust, and a strong sense of confidence in the organization.  But, I also believe we need to work hard to maintain the same degree of relevance in an ever changing and complex world.

The issues that required solutions are not all that different.  E.L. Luther reported on Oneida County’s needs in 1912 connected to things like healthy livestock, correcting acidic soils, methods to increase nitrogen for crops and forages, and silos to provide winter feed storage for dairy cattle. 

Today, we have some of these same challenges and are also focused on growing an industry and developing the human potential of the families and youth who live in our local communities.  The work that we do in support of the economy must also have a clear focus on sustaining the environment and natural resources and considering the impact of growth on the state’s infrastructure and on local communities.

Points to consider….
  • Was the work of E.L. Luther any easier (or more difficult) than your work today?  What about those who worked on campus? (What about the participants in Luther’s programs or the students in those early years of the University of Wisconsin-Madison?) 
  •   How did the technology of 1912 compare to today’s technology and infrastructure?  Besides Luther’s motorcycle, what other technologies helped him do his work in 1912?  What would E.L. Luther think if he was transported to 2012? 
  •   Are we making the best use of the technology that we have at our fingertips today?  Why or why not?  Are there barriers that hold us back?
  •   The “trains” that were referenced above made more than 100 stops from 1911 to 1912 and drew more than 32,000 people.  Why?  Are there things today that we do (or don’t do) that generate similar levels of interest and enthusiasm?
  • How did Luther’s presence in Oneida County influence the “presence” and spirit of the Land Grant concept in local communities?  What examples of this enduring spirit do we see today?
  •  How did Luther’s work and the work of the College of Agriculture in the late 1800s and early 1900s help set us up for 100 years of success?
  •  What is today’s agricultural “train” or Indian motorcycle?  Is it something we’ve not yet thought about?  What do we need to do to push the envelope to think in the same way that Extension’s original leaders did in 1912?

Part Two – Dear Mr. Francour, Thanks for a Dynamite Presentation! 
Part Three – Learn by Mail and the Evolution Toward that Internet Thingie
Part Four – To Tweet or not to Tweet…That is the Question (for all you Tweeps):  Or, What do We Need to be Doing Today to Keep up With Our Partners, Stakeholders, and Competitors?

Feb 13, 2012

Looking for Motivated and Curious People to Secure the Future of Food and Agriculture!

I know I am biased, but the University of Wisconsin Extension - Cooperative Extension remains the "premiere" place in the world to pursue a meaningful career that serves agriculture and the state's residents while also working to protect and maintain our precious natural resources.

I can say this with confidence based on our strong connection and deep relationships with every one of the state's 72 counties. In addition, the University of Wisconsin System has a deep-rooted and historical commitment to agriculture, natural resources, and environmentally-focused programs which is second to none. Our work and spirit of service and excellence is based on our never-ending pursuit of the Wisconsin Idea as well as our prominent rankings nationally and internationally*.

Over the last many months, we've worked with caution and in financially conservative ways with our county partners as we strategically move forward to fill some of our critical open positions.  These include agriculture agents who will serve some of Wisconsin's most important agricultural counties.  The UWEX Jobs site highlights agriculture and natural resource-oriented local positions in Sheboygan, Trempealeau, and Pepin counties -- all with rapidly approaching closing dates.

You will soon be seeing additional announcements as we release full-time positions for Sauk, Columbia, and Marathon counties.

Regardless of your role -- whether it's county agricultural agent, campus-based specialist, or agricultural leader/communicator in Wisconsin or nearby places, I'd love your help in getting the word out.  We are committed in our efforts to recruit the best and brightest to apply for these and future positions both on campus and in local Wisconsin communities. 

Please encourage people to visit:

Despite all of the challenges we face as a state (and nation), I remain convinced that Wisconsin is THE place in the U.S. to come for people interested in fully serving the Land Grant Mission that UW-Extension (as well as Madison, River Falls, and Platteville) have been fully engaged in and leading over the past 100 years!

*Link to "Rankings" goes to UW-Madison's Animal Science AND Dairy Sciences rankings.  You can also use the links on this page to get to other disciplines in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences such as Agricultural Economics, Entomology, Food Science, and others.

Jan 22, 2012

Be Ready When you Use the Term "Useless" to Describe Ag Majors

I was surprised last week to see my email and Twitter tweets begin to light up about an article by a blogger for Yahoo who had posted the story titled: College Majors That Are Useless.

The author, Terence Loose, pointed to data from the National Association of Colleges and Employers' (NACE) 2012 Job Outlook study and other sources in his final analysis that purported that Agriculture, Animal Science, and Horticulture were among the five college majors to avoid if you were looking for a post-degree job.

I wondered how long it would take for the passionate people and agricultural advocates who I follow on Twitter to begin to respond and rebut.  Many are students or are connected through their careers and activities to food and agriculture in various ways.

Not more than two hours after the story had been tweeted, I was at a meeting in our college and found that our Undergraduate Programs office at the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison was “all over” the story.  The following morning, I was sent a link to a well-written response appearing in the Huffington Post from my former colleague, friend, and Dean Allen Levine of the University of Minnesota’s College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences.  Thanks Dr. Levine!  From Friday through Sunday morning, I followed the rebuttals, posts, and other writing from about 13 or 14 other sources (see end of this article).

All who took the time to speak up and speak out did a great job of presenting information, stories, and personal testimonials to show that opportunities in agriculture, food, energy, the environment, and connected fields are rich with opportunity now and in the future.  Work at Purdue with USDA and described in one of the tweets actually shows that we will have shortages of qualified people in the future to work in these important areas of science that touch us all.  This matches my experiences as a long-time agricultural faculty member and administrator where we find that the different industries and businesses which serve our ag and food sectors to be hungry for top-notch grads who end up in great jobs making very good money – often with opportunities to travel extensively throughout the world and work on a wide range of exciting projects.

When I first read the Yahoo piece, I immediately regressed back to my teen years in the 1970s.  I remember that when someone would diss agriculture or farming, my Dad would say “Don’t say that with your mouth full.”  In thinking about writing this piece, I thought maybe I’d try not to go there…But, I couldn’t help but imagine that the blogger who wrote this somehow finished up his article, folded up his laptop, said goodbye to Starbucks and headed off to catch up with his friends for a beer (barley from Wisconsin and hops from Washington) and pizza (tomatoes from California, pork from Iowa, wheat from both Kansas and North Dakota, mushrooms from Pennsylvania, corn meal from Minnesota, cheese from Wisconsin, and olive oil from western Europe).  Perhaps I am wrong. I'm guessing that my perceptions and pre-conceived notions are probably not correct.  But, I will throw out the friendly invitation to have Mr. Loose come visit us in Wisconsin and we’ll show him some pretty cool stuff. 

So – several of us have made the food argument; the positive job outlook points; and, we’ve expressed our feelings about our personal and professionals passions for agriculture.  Let me try to add just a couple more points.  Then, at the end of this post, I will include the links that I collected from Twitter, emails, etc. over the last couple days. It will be fun to watch and see what others say.

Agriculture, Food, and World Peace

We all eat.  Everyone in the world.  Our world population is growing fast.  A recent report by 12 of the Land Grant universities in the Midwest documented that in the next 18 years, world population will grow from 7.0 billion in 2010 to 9.3 billion (by 2030). How big is an increase of 2.3 billion?  It’s like doubling the current population of China and India, all in less than two decades.  Further, we’ve seen developing areas of the world become relatively more affluent and active in the global economy. As the world becomes more able to provide basic necessities because of growing levels of economic activity in places like China, so to do their demands grow for protein in food products like milk, meat, cheese, eggs, etc. 

Bottom line…Even though world population will grow by 33% (from 7.0 billion to 9.3 billion), total food needs are likely to double.  All this will happen at the same time that available land is shrinking.  In the 1990s, we had 0.81 acres to feed each person on the globe.  By 2050, that number will be cut in half.  So – we double production with half the land.  Mr. Loose, I’m afraid we’re going to need agricultural science people (including people doing work with animals and horticultural crops), or we’re in for a tough slog.

Further, we know from periods throughout history that when food resources are threatened, instability increases. There are more wars and conflict during times of hunger. Entire civilizations change, often in negative ways!  Having a dependable, nutritious, safe supply of food is vital to world peace.  Children who we will expect to do well in school and grow their local and regional economies to solve new challenges and provide leadership in the coming years  – whether they’re in Utah, Uzbekistan, or Uganda will need to be well-nourished if we expect them do well in school.  And, we need an educated global citizenry whether those young people are working in agriculture, designing our next energy-efficient transportation system (which will include agriculturally-sourced biofuels), or writing blog posts for Yahoo. Our future and agriculture is intimately connected.

Energy, Climate Change, and Other Environmental Challenges

On the issue of world peace, we’ve seen how a dependence on non-renewable, petroleum-based fuels adds to the complexity, instability, and fragile nature of world peace.  Throughout the world, billions of dollars are going into the science and discovery associated with the new generations of biofuels, biogases, and other renewable energy sources that will fuel tomorrow’s transportation system and the power grid.  Green plants do a miraculous job of harvesting “solar energy” and current agricultural science (and agriculture graduates) are making great advancements in figuring out how we can unlock that energy in ways that will help wean us from other energy sources. 

In addition to the “foreign energy dependence” driver for agricultural energy advancements, this science is also being influenced by our need to figure out and perhaps mitigate, respond to, or slow down climate change.  Producing food and other forms of energy involves complex biological and physical cycles and relationships connected to carbon, water, and other substances that both bless and challenge us in many ways.  People studying agriculture and related biosciences and pursuing degrees in fields like horticulture and animal science study all of these critical processes.

On the issue of water, we know that producing food and renewable energy is a water-intensive process.  Growing plants need nutrients that are carried by water (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and a range of other substances).  These nutrients must be present at the right time, in the right place, and in appropriate amounts.  Too much at the wrong time (or in the wrong place) can result in adverse impacts on ground and surface waters (pollution and waste).  Crops that are rapidly growing to produce seeds, fruit, and biomass consume and transpire lots of water.  Similar to nutrients, water must be applied at the right time, in the right place, and in the correct amounts. Crop “selection” and production practices must be carefully matched to the resources that are available to insure the long term sustainability of our precious water resources.  All of this takes the cooperation of the farmer along with soil scientists, engineers, horticulturalists, and agronomists.

Economic Development

One of the blogs cited in response to the original Yahoo blog post indicated that California produces $33 billion in direct revenue from agricultural products.  But, there’s a bigger story to tell.  In the state of Wisconsin, we know that our agricultural and directly connected food sectors contribute about $60 billion to the state’s economy through direct sales and production and the indirect and induced impacts as value is added to raw products and as dollars ripple throughout both rural and urban economies.  (so, the number in California is actually MUCH bigger when one considers all of the interconnected ripple effects that agriculture has on a state’s economy) Those who work in agriculture and food in Wisconsin make up about 10% of the total workforce.   

During the economic downturn from 2007-2010, while much of Wisconsin’s economy (including housing, manufacturing, and finance) was mired in the mud, the agricultural and food sectors actually prospered because of growing demands for agricultural products for both food and fuel uses.  Nationally, while fewer than two million people are actually involved in “farming,” there are more than 20 million who work in connected industries such as agricultural scientists, input suppliers, processors, and the many who work in connected and supporting food-related industries.   

(Note: there are growing concerns that there will be a bit of a near-term slowdown in the ag/food sectors in the next several months, particularly as a result of the economic slowdown in both Europe and Asia.  See recent video segment on this issue: .  But, the bigger and longer term needs in agriculture over the next couple decades point to a continued bright future).

The Opportunity to Tell the Story

I was chatting with a couple of colleagues last Friday night who were bemoaning having had to spend several hours during the week responding, rebutting, and doing “damage control” after the Yahoo blog post had generated some angst for those who work in agriculture.  It was probably a tempest in a teapot. 

But, I actually think it presents a GREAT opportunity for agriculture to tell its story. Actually…we have of thousands of stories to tell!  I think that Mr. Loose did a good thing by rallying those who are passionate.  We now have a great medium in places like Twitter and Facebook to tell the story that we need to be telling every day.  Mr. Loose’s feelings and opinions are not unique.  In fact, my guess is that the majority of our population would have very similar perceptions.

Keep telling the story.  Keep engaging.  Keep the passion and the enthusiasm.  Find ways, times, and places to get others to touch, see, hear, and experience the glory of our agricultural and food system.   

Mr. Terrence Loose – the invitation is out.  Come see us.  We’ll make sure your visit includes Babcock Ice Cream and Cheese, New Glarus Beer, a visit to our Dane County Farmers’ Market, and an opportunity to meet some really cool and important people.  The ones who will be graduating in agriculture in the next few years and insuring our future!

-John Shutske (
  Extension Program Leader and Associate Dean

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