UNIVERSITY PARK - Back in April, the same weekend as Penn State's Blue-White football game, there was a meeting in the college's school of agriculture.
Part university lecture, part tent revival, the small group associated with Penn State Extension was there to hear the organization's message - and how to take it back home.
The goal, said Bruce McPheron, dean of the college, was to enhance the extension program's brand recognition. Dennis Calvin, the director of Penn State extension, put it succinctly: In the ag community, everyone knows the extension, while in the general population only a small percentage of people identify it as a part of their lives.
Sentinel photo by BRADLEY KREITZER
Carol Goss pulls weeds at the Juniata Valley Master Gardeners new garden location near the Mifflin County Library Thursday evening in Lewistown.
But the extension is there - sometimes in ways people don't realize. And as it prepares to mark 100 years of service, the people behind the extension want the rest to know what it has to offer.
The roots of today's extension go back to 1862, when the federal Morill Act gave birth to land-grant universities, including Penn State. The mission of these new schools was to educate citizens in basic topics - agriculture, home economics and mechanics. In 1914, the relationship between the colleges and the U.S. Department of Agriculture was formalized through the extension service, which was tasked with instructing and improving agriculture.
"We've had 150-plus year focus on rural communities. That's still a critical part of our focus," McPheron said. "We have to be thinking about how all of our changes allow us to be more agile in addressing emerging issues."
It's not just about the farm anymore - although that still remains a major part of what extension does. Among the more recognized activities of the extension are 4-H and, in Penn State Extension, the master gardener program. But today, McPheron said, the extension has to be able to solve real problems, keep communities in business. It's not just teaching, he said, but generating new knowledge through research.
"Our best teaching is not in the classroom," he said. "Our best teaching is what we give our students outside the classroom."
Whether from the ag standpoint or that of the public, the most important thing extension deals with is food - from the planting all the way through consumption. Extension, for example, is the teaching agency that has certified restaurants across the commonwealth through its ServSafe program. And it is looking at other food-related issues, from food-borne illness to availability (so-called "food deserts"), and the potential vulnerability of our food supply to an attack.
"We historically think about food in terms of getting it out there," McPheron said. "The biggest pressures on the U.S. health system are tied to what we eat. Can we as the key linchpin in the agricultural food system ignore than connection?
"We feel that the structure that we put in place, especially here on campus, really puts us into an opportunity to embrace those issues. This is important to be thinking about."
It's about food safety, he said. And diversity of agriculture. There are efforts to make food more nutritious.
Then there's the water supply, which drives most issues related to agriculture. And the bio-economy, as he calls it - things like renewable fuels, mainly corn-based products, that may someday replace conventional energy sources.
Calvin said the key is to adapt to trends and adopt technology, for extension to start acting more like a business than a government agency. That, too, is part of the branding message he and McPheron were preaching.
"How many 100-year-old companies do you know that still do things the way they did 100 years ago that are still in business?," Calvin asks. "The issues that we're dealing with in cooperative extension aren't necessarily the change. We know what we need to do to change. The hard part is what they call transition. You've got to get (people) to change and buy into this whole system of where we want to go."
What Calvin wants - and challenged the crowd to help achieve - is for Penn State Extension to be the biggest innovator at the national level.