Cooperative Extension Turns 100
Grapegrowers celebrate a century of university farming research
Cooperative Extension was started to help farmers, homemakers and young people use the latest university research to improve their lives. A century later, Cooperative Extension continues to provide a vital link between public universities and communities.
Nowhere is that more true than in viticulture.
Extension and grapegrowing
Cooperative Extension advisors have been a vital help in improving viticulture as well as helping wine grape growers overcome a host of pests, diseases and water and climatic issues by applying university research to solve problems. Many advisors help the wine community.
In California, Rhonda Smith has been a farm advisor for Cooperative Extension in Sonoma County for almost 30 years. She started in 1986, and she’s seen many changes since that time: “In early days, most growers were small, independent farmers.” Now most of the people Smith works with are employees of large corporations, many multinational.
In addition, the county’s vineyard acreage has doubled, from 30,000 to 60,000 acres. And prices have escalated dramatically. “When I started, the weighted average price was under $1,000 per ton; few growers received more than that.” Now prices are more than double that number.
In the early days, farm advisors dealt with multiple crops, and the viticultural work and research was primarily focused on improving the culture of vines. Things soon changed. “Increasingly, the trials were associated with grapevine pests, especially exotic pests,” Smith said.
The year Smith started with Cooperative Extension was the first year growers started to notice decline due to Phylloxera of vines planted on AXR-1 rootstock.
Then there was the glassy-winged sharpshooter in the 1990s, the vine mealybug in 2002, the light brown apple moth in 2008 and the European grapevine moth in 2009. “They all created an immediate need for research,” she noted. “Though none is eradicated, we’ve made remarkable progress to date in our efforts.”
This year, with a water shortage looming, Smith will be spending a lot of time on irrigation. “We need to farm grapes with far less water than we used to,” she said.
Monica Cooper is much newer to Cooperative Extension than Smith.
She has been the viticulture farm advisor for Napa County since April 2009, when she walked into a big problem: the European grapevine moth. While continuing research she had been conducting with mealybugs and leafroll virus, she jumped into the fight and, with the help of research and cooperation from the growers along with county action, beat back the new bug.
Since then, Cooper has dealt with other pests, and now red blotch virus is a huge issue.
Though many think she must be an entomologist, Cooper actually has a Ph.D. in plant health, the botanical version of an MD or DVM. “My degree was designed for the job I’m doing,” she noted.
Much of her time is spent with growers and educating them via seminars and groups, but she continues to conduct research, including with Pierce’s disease-resistant rootstock, vine and trunk disease and vectors for red blotch. This year, Cooper suspects she’s going to be very involved with water issues. She’s excited about research into evapotranspiration in vines. “Water is, and will be, a huge issue.”
A question of water
Glenn McGourty agrees, too. “I’ve been telling growers that they need to learn to farm without irrigation,” said the long-time farm advisor for California’s Mendocino and Lake counties.
Mendocino vineyards haven’t expanded as much as Sonoma—from 12,000 acres in 1987 to 16,000 acres now—but those in Lake County, which he also advises, quadrupled from 2,000 acres to 8,000 acres.
McGourty, who also writes the Grounded Grapegrowing column for Wines & Vines, came to Mendocino County in 1987 as an advisor with the system’s first charge of sustainability in his job description. “They were ahead of themselves then,” he said.
Because of his counties’ relative isolation and colder climate, it has less pest pressure, and Mendocino has been a leader in organic farming.
McGourty said that 95% of his work is with wine grape growers, though he does support nurseries, landscapers and even vegetable farmers.
Water issues also are moving McGourty and other farm advisors into public-policy discussions. “California is making growers take more responsibility for the public trust issues of streams, wildlife and the environment of their property,” he noted.
Frost protection is a big issue, of course, and there have been complaints that growers have depleted streams for this purpose, but improved technology and techniques have halved demand for water, and better forecasting now allows the water agency to release water into the Russian River when frost is expected.
Nevertheless, water will continue to be a big concern.
The role of Cooperative Extension
Grapegrowers are most familiar with their viticultural advisors as well as specialists and university researchers, but Cooperative Extension has a much broader impact.
“We farm 400 commodities in California with a value of $45 billion,” noted CEO Barbara Allen-Diaz, the vice president of the University of California’s Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources and a specialist in rangeland management.
Her division focuses on healthy food systems, healthy environments, healthy communities and healthy Californians.
It’s the bridge between local issues and the power of UC Research, with 200 locally based Cooperative Extension advisors and specialists, 57 local offices throughout California, 130 campus-based Cooperative Extension specialists, nine Research and Extension Centers and 700 academic researchers in 40 departments at four colleges and one professional school, UC Berkeley College of Natural Resources, UC Davis College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine and UC Riverside College of Natural and Agricultural Sciences.
The history of Cooperative Extension
The Cooperative Extension system was built on the foundation of state land-grant colleges, created by the 1862 Morrill Act and signed into law by U.S. president Abraham Lincoln. It gave each state a grant of land to establish a college that would teach practical subjects such as agriculture and engineering.
The 1887 Hatch Act provided land-grant colleges with funds to develop agricultural experiment stations where research was to be conducted.
However, until the passage of the Smith-Lever Act, there was not a consistent way of getting important research-based knowledge from the campuses out to the communities that needed this information.
Sen. Hoke Smith of Georgia and Rep. Asbury Lever of South Carolina authored the legislation, and it created a historic partnership between land-grant universities and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Founded by USDA educator Seaman Knapp, this program was based on farmer-led demonstrations, and was popular and successful throughout the south.
President Woodrow Wilson signed the Smith-Lever Act on May 8, 1914, and soon, each state’s land grant university was organizing Cooperative Extension, or formalizing existing efforts.
In California, efforts were already under way to create an agricultural extension system, building on the success of the state’s land grant, the University of California.
The first UC campus, at Berkeley, had agriculture as an important early focus, and in 1907, a university research farm was opened in Davisville, a site that grew into a new campus: UC Davis.
New knowledge and technologies developed by UC scientists were critical to the growth of farming and allied industries around the state.
By the time the Smith-Lever Act became law, UC agriculture faculty already were offering short courses and institutes for farmers around the state, but farmers were clamoring for more. Many California farmers were excited about the possibility of having a Cooperative Extension educator, known as a “farm advisor,” assigned to their community.
University of California officials required each county that wanted to participate in the Cooperative Extension partnership to allocate funding to help support extension work in that community.
In addition, a group of farmers in each county had to organize a “farm bureau” to help guide the farm advisor on the issues of local agriculture.
In its first years, Cooperative Extension played a critical role on the home front during World War I, helping farmers to grow enough wheat and other crops to meet expanded wartime needs.
In addition to addressing the needs of farmers, Cooperative Extension soon expanded to provide educational opportunities for families, including programs for rural women and activities for local youth.
“Home demonstration agents” working with rural women taught nutrition, food preservation and a variety of skills. Thousands of young people would learn about food production, cooking, science and more through participation in 4-H clubs.
Despite its rural roots, as communities have changed, so has Cooperative Extension, adapting and fine-tuning programs to meet the needs of a changing society. As the nation urbanized, many Cooperative Extension efforts were developed to meet the needs of non-rural and rural audiences alike. Examples include the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program that has offered free nutrition education classes in urban communities since the 1960s.
Thousands of urban and suburban residents have benefited from Cooperative Extension’s Master Gardener Program that offers workshops and advice to home, community and school gardeners.
Regardless of the population served, Cooperative Extension activities are grounded in university research and developed in partnership with local communities.
As Rhonda Smith and Monica Cooper mentioned, water is going to become a huge issue. Cooperative Extension is responding on many fronts. Barbara Allen-Diaz noted that its initiatives include the water-resources institute to coordinate efforts across UC campuses, water boards, the California Department of Food and Agriculture and growers, the governor’s water panel, irrigation technology and ways to use poor-quality water.
Grapegrowers will be waiting anxiously to learn about research and how they can apply it.