Intelligencer Journal/Lancaster New Era
Extension milestone BY JON RUTTER, Staff Writer
They have questions about farm, food and home.
For exactly 100 years now, the Lancaster County Penn State Cooperative Extension Service has had answers:
What that spot on your tomato might be.
Where to market feeder cattle.
How to build a chicken coop.
The Q&A goes on.
The dialogue is magnitudes different from that of 1913 when debut agent Floyd "Dutch" Bucher motorcycled about the sparsely settled countryside on dirt roads.
Back then, nobody had heard of West Nile virus. Contour farming was a radical idea. Hybrid corn and artificial insemination of livestock were years away.
Bucher had his work cut out just convincing farmers that a "college boy" had helpful ideas about how to do things.
He eventually won that tussle.
But the scene has kept right on changing, even since 1988 when, the local extension marked 75 years.
Now, said Leon Ressler, director for the extension in Lancaster, Chester and Lebanon counties, "You have computer chips on virtually every piece of equipment on the farm."
Today's big, increasingly specialized agribusinesses need "very highly specialized" information, Ressler added.
The way information is transmitted changed markedly last year when the shrinking state budget led the extension system to consolidate its administrators and educators.
The educators now focus far beyond the county, teaching programs as part of statewide teams.
But their inspiration remains unchanged.
"Ours is all science-based research," Ressler said. The practical knowledge that has yielded over the years has proved invaluable.
"We feed the Eastern seaboard," Ressler said.
Ressler, who became director in 2007, joined the extension in 1987, focusing on rural clean water.
That gives him a quarter-century of perspective on the growth of the organization, which is celebrating 100 years this evening with a special celebration during its annual meeting in the Farm & Home Center, 1383 Arcadia Road.
"Back in 1913," said Ressler, who has been combing through leatherbound meeting minutes, recently discovered in the extension's basement, "everyone was kind of the same."
Mom-and-pop farming with horses was the norm. A significant chunk of the population fed itself.
The template still applies to the extension's numerous Plain sect clients. Meanwhile, other farmers are rapidly speeding up technologically.
It used to take 12 to 14 weeks to produce a broiler chicken, for example, said Dr. Gregory Martin, the extension educator for poultry science.
The interval is now down to six weeks, Martin added.
The contrast between old and new ways is increasing, leading to what Ressler calls one of his organization's most "interesting" challenges: "We have two very divergent groups."
Donna Sullivan sees fragmentation, too, when she presents programs to public assistance nutrition education clients.
"Kind of a whole generation has skipped learning to cook," she said. "We're trying to teach them how to do that."
Family and consumer science programs have adapted to societal trends. Sewing went out at Penn State in the 1980s. Heart health and the fight against obesity and diabetes is in.
Nancy Wiker started as an extension educator 16 years ago. Since then, she said, selling food as a fundraiser has become huge. The extension duly added a "Cooking for Crowds" course.
"The public's pretty savvy about food safety now," Wiker said.
At the same time, some people have been reverting to an earlier, more self-sustaining mindset.
"Backyard egg production" has been picking up, Martin said.
Warren Wolf, who coordinates the county's 98 volunteer Master Gardeners, noticed the trend about five years ago.
"When the economy went south in 2008," he said, "we saw a pretty big uptick in people wanting to raise their own food ... . They want to know how to grow things. They want to know how to plant things."
And once they've coaxed a bounty from the soil, they want to know how to save some of it.
They turn to Martha Zepp, the extension's food preservation consultant, for the latest.
Zepp said people are sometimes surprised to learn that canning techniques evolve with food science and cannot safely be passed down unmodified through the generations.
"We're constantly updating safety," she said. "We know how long it actually takes to destroy the spoilage organisms," namely 85 minutes for canned tomatoes.
That's an hour longer than common practice in the 1940s.
And who knows how many potential cases of botulism were warded off.
Said Wiker: "I tell Martha she saves people's lives."
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