It’s been nearly 100 years since Lancaster County’s first agricultural education agent was hired.
Lancaster County Extension will celebrate the milestone this coming Thursday by recognizing some of the agency’s many accomplishments over the years.
Nearly 400 people are expected to attend the county Extension board’s centennial celebration at the Farm and Home Center in Lancaster.
Leon Ressler, district Extension director for Lancaster, Lebanon and Chester counties, said the meeting will include eight speakers, representing different decades, who will touch on the evolution of Extension over the years and its impact on the county’s vital farming community.
The county’s first Extension agent, Floyd “Dutch” Bucher of Reamstown, Pa., was hired on March 3, 1913, after a group of farmers and businessmen got together to establish a local chapter of what was then known as the “National Farm Bureau.”
Membership in the organization cost $1 a year.
Ressler said the community wanted someone who could relay some of the farm research being done at Penn State to farmers in the community.
“At that point in history, the land-grant university had been generating research, but it didn’t have any link to the community,” he said.
Through old meeting minutes and anecdotes from people who knew of Bucher, Ressler found out that the agent was quite a personality in his own right.
In 1914, Bucher bought a motorcycle to help him get around the county and meet with farmers.
Ressler said Bucher was known as a kind of hot rod on his bike and former researchers from Penn State used to comment on how he would scare them with wild rides through the countryside.
Bucher was the county’s lone agent until 1921, according to Ressler.
His reputation aside, Ressler said Bucher along with the county’s other first ag agents were instrumental in getting farmers educated on mechanization and soil conservation practices that were at that time novel.
In the late 1930s, Jay Garber’s father, Clarence, farmed acreage just south of Lancaster and was one of the first in the county to put in soil terraces to reduce erosion.
Garber said his family received help from the federal soil conservation service and Extension to put in the terraces on sloped land, including payment for all labor and machinery.
“Our farm is (the) kind of land that was unique to accommodate terraces,” he said, adding that soil and water would routinely run off onto a neighbor’s farm before the terraces were put in.
“It has kept the soil on the farm. It’s always a satisfying feeling to see them working,” Garber said.
Over the years, the farm, which now includes 120 acres, has been converting to no-till practices, which also have been put in with the help of Extension agents.
Wayne Martenas, who spent 38 years working as an engineer for Case New Holland and is now a member of the county Extension board, said agents were critical in getting new farming practices in place, including row spacing for planters.
“Over time, things started to standardize,” Martenas said. “If you don’t have standards that have been researched, have farmers educated, from an equipment manufacturer’s perspective, it is really difficult to provide different pieces of equipment.”
Glenn Shirk, who spent 41 years as an Extension educator and worked in Lancaster County from 1979 to 2002, said Extension helped dairy farmers change their mindset from thinking of the farm as a mere way of life to more of a business and focusing on making them successful.
“The emphasis on business became much more prevalent in recent years. A more acute business approach became very necessary as time went on,” Shirk said.
Ressler said Extension agents also helped farmers adopt fertilization practices on the farm, which he said were lacking before World War II.
He also said Extension has been critical in reaching out to the county’s important Plain Sect community, working with various businesses to provide financial planning services.
Over the past 10 years, Ressler said, there has been more outreach to Plain Sect women, along with more of a focus on farm safety education in schools.
Food safety regulations, he said, will be a big focus over the next few years, helping producers and produce markets get GAP (good agricultural practices) certified.
Budget and staff cuts have trimmed the number of Extension agents in the state, with many now covering multiple counties and educational programs now being done online.
Still, Ressler said, Extension remains a crucial educational tool for farmers.
“Certainly things are different now,” he said. “The evolution of the information age provides many more sources of information.
“The one thing that keeps Extension unique and important, our information is based on unbiased information. That’s what really keeps Extension relevant and viable,” he said.