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Anniversary stories speak to enduring value of Extension

PULLMAN, Wash. – “If you eat, Extension has helped you. Whether you know it or not,” said Debbie Niehenke, a 4-H leader and farmer in Whitman County, Wash. Niehenke recently shared her thoughts about Washington State University Extension as part of an oral history project launched in honor of the service’s 100th birthday.

In 2014, WSU and fellow land-grant universities nationwide celebrate the centennial of the Smith-Lever Act. The legislation, signed by President Woodrow Wilson on May 8, 1914, created the Cooperative Extension Service, a national network of educators who extend university-based knowledge to the people.

Debbie Niehenke with 4-H’ers Liz and Courtney at the 4-H Teen Conference at WSU.
Debbie Niehenke with 4-H’ers Liz and Courtney at the 4-H Teen Conference at WSU.

In coming months, WSU Extension will embark on the next 100 years with celebrations and service projects hosted by county offices statewide. The agency will also reflect on the past through the creation of a living history, “The Voices of Extension,” on its website (

“Every one of us has been impacted by the benefits that come from the research, the skills and the tools (Extension delivers),” Niehenke said. “They’ve made us better at what we do. They’ve made us more knowledgeable. They’ve made us safer. And they’ve helped us produce products that Washington can be proud of.”

A century of impacts

Niehenke’s narrative joins the more than 30 stories posted on the website since the project was launched in March. The goal is to collect 100 stories.

“The stories create a clear picture of how a century of Extension programs has helped people of all ages apply university knowledge and research to improving their lives,” said Rich Koenig, director of WSU Extension. “This has been our focus for the first 100 hundred years and it will continue to be for the next hundred years.”

A common theme emerging from the stories is how Extension helps children gain confidence and skills to become better citizens through programs like 4-H, Master Gardener and Food $ense.

Laura Heldreth, a Clark County Master Gardener volunteer, wrote about her experience helping to teach a class called “Lettuce Eat” to elementary students in western Washington.


Laura Heldreth, Clark County Master Gardener volunteer.
Laura Heldreth, Clark County Master Gardener volunteer.

“I helped hand out five different greens: romaine, butter lettuce, iceberg, baby spinach and red loose-leaf lettuce,” she said. “The students studied the various kinds of lettuce leaves under a lens.

“Then (the instructor) guided them through a taste testing where they wrapped a cheese stick in the various lettuce leaves and dipped them in ranch and salsa,” Heldreth added. “I watched students begin the class looking at the green leaves like they were the nightly enemy on their dinner plate, only to exclaim how much they loved baby spinach by the end of the class.”

The class Heldreth participated in is one of more than 31,000 programs, workshops, demonstrations and projects delivered by Extension staff and volunteers.

In 2013, WSU Extension interacted directly with nearly 90,000 children through 4-H. The Childhood Obesity and Master Gardener programs log more than 1.2 million interactions with children annually. These programs foster positive youth and family development, increasing local food supplies, improving dietary quality and encouraging physical activity.

Training tomorrow’s leaders

Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers has her own story about the role 4-H plays for children.

Young 4-Her Cathy McMorris Rodgers.
Young 4-Her Cathy McMorris Rodgers.

“For as long as I can remember, 4-H has had a positive impact on my life,” she wrote. “My brother Jeff and I spent many hours raising animals, cultivating a sense of responsibility and appreciating the value of hard work.

“When I showed my 4-H animals at the fair, my parents used to tell me, ‘Cathy, now you save this money so you can go to college one day!’ So I did. And I became the first in my family to graduate from college. As a proud 4-Her, I am honored to celebrate this organization for all it has done to change the lives of millions of children across the country.”

As the nation’s largest youth development organization, 4-H began in a few states to extend agricultural education to rural youth by organizing afterschool clubs where children could learn through hands-on experience. The Smith-Lever Act enabled 4-H to become a nationwide program.

In 2013, more than 7,000 4-H volunteers logged more than 1.2 million hours in service of the state’s children and families.

“Volunteers are the heart of the 4-H program,” said Pat BoyEs, director of WSU Extension 4-H Youth Development. “They provide support, energy and inspiration to nearly 90,000 youth.”

Remaining true to its beginnings

As the world has changed over the past century, so has Extension. Its programs, which started out serving the needs of rural agricultural communities, have expanded to include research and education for urban communities. Extension provides research-based solutions to address a wide variety of urban issues, including food safety, youth development, environmental stewardship, energy production and conservation, and economic development.

Laurie and Randy Suess at their farm in Colfax, Wash.
Laurie and Randy Suess at their farm in Colfax, Wash.

Despite Extension’s widening focus, partnering with farmers remains an essential part of its mission.

“I think we benefit the most from all the work they do on analysis,” said Randy Suess, a Whitman County farmer. “It is very valuable to know how new products and plant varieties will benefit our operations based on actual field tests.”

Suess described what the job requirements for an Extension agent include: “They need to know a wide variety of crops, cropping systems and the diseases, weeds or insects that could affect them. They must be knowledgeable about cattle, sheep, pigs, chickens, ducks, rabbits and land management,” he said, adding “walk on water” to the long list.

Last year WSU Extension’s research and teaching efforts directed at agricultural productivity resulted in more than 125,000 direct contacts with farmers and food producers.

Extension faculty and researchers published more than 100 peer-reviewed publications, helping to advance the scientific body of knowledge for agriculture, and presented 1,620 seminars, workshops, demonstrations, field days and educational events focused on agricultural profitability and food security.

WSU Extension will continue to collect stories for “The Voices of Extension” living history project through the end of the year. To contribute your Extension story or to read and hear what others have to say, visit: To learn more about Extension anniversary celebrations and service projects, visit

—Kate Wilhite