Knapp lays the groundwork for Cooperative Extension

Linda Benedict, McClure, Olivia J.  |  6/6/2014 2:32:19 AM

George Washington Carver (1864-1943). Carver was instrumental in teaching Southern farmers, particularly African-American farmers, about the advantages of alternative crops such as peanuts and sweet potatoes.

Photo By: Louisiana Agriculture Magazine

Seaman A. Knapp (1833-1911). Knapp became famous for his work introducing rice as an alternative crop in the South and for helping Southern farmers adapt to using a faster growing cotton crop to protect them from boll weevils.

Photo By: Louisiana Agriculture Magazine

Asbury Francis “Frank” Lever(1875-1940) Frank Lever was born near Springhill, S.C., and initially worked as a school teacher. From 1897 to 1901, he was Rep. J. William Stokes’ private secretary in Washington, D.C. During that time, Lever attended law school at George town University. In 1901, he was elected the South Carolina House of Representatives. Later that year, Stokes died and Lever was chosen to fill his term. He won several reelections and served in Congress until 1919. In 1913, he became chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture. After his time in Congress, Lever worked for the Federal Farm Loan Board, Federal Farm Board and Farm Credit Administration.

Photo By: Louisiana Agriculture Magazine

Michael Hoke Smith(1855-1931)Hoke Smith was born in Newton, N.C.,and moved with his family to Georgia in 1872. A year later, he passed the bar exam and began practicing law in Atlanta. He served on the Fulton County and Georgia Democratic conventions, was president of the Atlanta Board of Education and owned the Atlanta Journal. In return for the newspaper’s strong support of his1892 campaign, Grover Cleveland appointed Smith secretary of the interior in 1893. He pushed for economic development in the South. In 1907, he was elected governor of Georgia, a position he used to establish Jim Crow laws and railroad reform. Soon after being reelected in 1911, Smith was selected to fill an unexpired term in the U.S. Senate. He was reelected to the Senate in 1914.

Photo By: Louisiana Agriculture Magazine

Olivia McClure

Seaman Knapp’s legacy goes far beyond the building named after him on LSU’s campus. Through demonstration farms he set up in southwestern Louisiana, Knapp pioneered a system for teaching farmers about modern, research-based techniques, laying the groundwork for Cooperative Extension as it is known today.

Knapp was born in 1833 and grew up on his family’s farm in New York. He studied liberal arts in college and became an instructor and administrator at the Fort Edward Collegiate Institute in New York. In 1866, Knapp moved to a farm in Iowa and worked as a pastor and head of the Iowa State School for the Blind.

Knapp suffered an injury and infection that bound him to a wheelchair for eight years. He spent his time reading and became absorbed by agricultural research. An educator at heart, Knapp was interested in how to best train farmers in modern, more effective techniques. In 1876, Knapp began writing articles and giving speeches about progressive methods he tested on his farm, where he raised sheep and pigs.

Knapp’s work led him to Iowa State College of Agriculture in 1879, where he was a professor and set up the first demonstration farm. Inspired by the experiments conducted on the campus farm, Knapp pushed for a bill — later called the Hatch Act of 1887 — that provides federal dollars to create agricultural experiment stations at land-grant colleges.

In the mid-1880s, Knapp relocated to Louisiana. He bought 160 acres of land in southwestern Louisiana, where he founded the town of Vinton. Local farmers relied on traditional methods and tools, offering Knapp a laboratory to test his theories and modernize agriculture in the area. He introduced farmers to upland rice and encouraged them to use the more efficient techniques he developed.

However, many farmers were reluctant to change their ways. Some of those who did struggled with their crops, became discouraged and moved away.

Knapp, a firm believer in agricultural demonstration, convinced some friends from Iowa to move to Louisiana, establish model farms and help local growers with problems they encountered in the fields. They became the first agriculture extension agents. The rice crop flourished and became the successful major crop it still is today in southwestern Louisiana.

Knapp took this model with him to Texas in the early 1900s, where the boll weevil was wreaking havoc on cotton. Through demonstration, he taught farmers how to protect their crop against the insects and introduced them to alternative crops such as corn and peas.

In 1909, Michigan Congressman James McLaughlin proposed a bill that would give states money to administer extension services like those Knapp modeled through landgrant colleges. There was no role for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in McLaughlin’s bill, which caused debate and eventually the bill’s failure. Knapp died two years later.

This was the Progressive Era, however, and just about every industry was looking for ways to modernize using scientific research.

Three years after Knapp’s death, Sen. Hoke Smith of Georgia and Rep. Frank Lever of South Carolina introduced legislation that partnered the USDA with land-grant universities, creating the Cooperative Extension Service. The federal government appropriates funds matched by states to provide practical, research-based information on agriculture and home economics through county-level extension agents. The Smith-Lever Act became law on May 8, 1914.

Olivia McClure is a student worker in LSU AgCenter Communications.

(This article was published in the spring 2014 issues of Louisiana Agriculture.)

Related article:
Cooperative Extension: A Century of Innovation in the February 2014 issue of the Journal of Extension. Authors: Francis I. Gould, Douglas Steele and William J. Woodrum

Video:
Watch this 1:21-min video, Agents of Change: Agricultural Legislation.

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