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Ear to the Ground

 

A few days ago I was writing a speech, and I got so tickled I just slid out of my chair laughing. The subject was the centennial of the Smith-Lever Act, which established the federal-state extension service in 1914. I know, that doesn’t sound particularly funny.

What happened was I wanted to say something about the image of county extension workers over the years, and I remembered Hank Kimble, the county agent from Green Acres. For younger readers now, I’ll mention that Green Acres was a situation comedy on television from 1965 to 1971, starring Eddie Albert and Eva Gabor as unlikely farmers taking up residence in Hooterville.

As far as my late father was concerned, the real star of the show was Alvy Moore, who played Hank Kimble, the county agent. Every time Hank came on-screen my dad just let go of the day’s work and cares and chortled with delight.

Hank was a feckless fellow who couldn’t carry a thought in a bucket, let alone provide anyone “useful and practical information,” as the Smith-Lever Act called for in 1914. And yet he was also sort of a savant, who now and then punctuated his ramblings with a pithy piece of wisdom, such as, “A county agent’s gotta keep his ear to the ground.”

It wasn’t that my father disliked county agents, not so at all, he just appreciated the comedy. And if you were watching Green Acres in those days, you realized that however goofy the characters were, the plots touched on real issues and developments close to us here on the prairies. In 1968, the year of the great wheat referendum on the plains, Eddie Albert persuaded his fellow farmers in Hooterville to give up their usual, unprofitable crops and instead plant—rutabagas.

OK, I had to stop writing again for a while, because just the memory of that rutabaga episode caused another collapse. So I depart Hooterville now and return to the prairies in order to say something about real county agents as I know them, through historical research and personal experience.

Real county agents sometimes find themselves in difficult situations, but they do their best to carry out their mission to serve agriculture and rural life. When extension set up shop in Great Plains counties, which mainly happened in the 1920s, it had two problems.

The first was that extension was supposed to dispense the knowledge about farming generated by researchers at the agricultural college—but in fact, that research base was thin, and often inapplicable to the problems of the day.

What smart young county agents did, then, was to identify the best farmers in the county, line them up as cooperators, and use their practices as models. Meanwhile, the agents also reported back to the college researchers what was happening, thereby shaping a more responsive research program. This is the pattern I found in a study of early extension work in Kansas.

Later I led a research team studying extension developments in North Dakota, where another difficulty surfaced. All the farmers were immigrants with little command of English, and so county agents could get no traction among them. County agents had to back off, learn, and get over their prejudices against foreigners before they could even start a conversation.

County agents I know today have gone native. They are embedded in their communities, share their concerns and aspirations, and work hard and well to serve them. You might say, they have their ears to the ground.

 

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