Farm Progress

Throwback Thursday: “Scattering the Seeds of Knowledge” book reports what agents said and wrote back when Extension was just beginning.

June 8, 2017

3 Min Read
DOCUMENT HISTORY: Fred Whitford’s latest book makes the words of Extension agents from nearly a century ago come alive.

Dead people can’t talk. But their thoughts come alive if you read the words they wrote and spoke. Many of the early Purdue University Extension agents from the teens and ’20s of the last century cut their teeth on hard times. They would feel at home in the tough economic times farmers face today. Technology has changed, but some problems are similar.

Fred Whitford, director of Purdue Pesticide Programs, has authored several books about the founders of Purdue and the beginning of Extension. Some 300 copies of his book “Enriching the Hoosier Farm Family” will be given away for free to those attending the 100th anniversary field day of the Davis Purdue Agricultural Center near Farmland on Aug. 29.

The book captures the early days of Extension, largely in original pictures and captions. Whitford’s latest book, just released, is “Scattering the Seeds of Knowledge: The Words and Works of Indiana’s Pioneer County Extension Agents.” This book makes the pictures of his previous work come alive. Meet some of the earliest Extension agents in Indiana through the words they spoke and wrote. The book is available from the Purdue University Press. Visit

Here are four examples that illustrate how those early pioneers helped farmers in tough times.

Better farming practices. One of the projects agents undertook in the teens was proving to farmers that lime had value, Whitford says. He found these words from Oscar E. Ackerson, Greene County agent, in 1917: “Lime is now accepted as a good treatment for much of our sour soils. It was scarcely used at all before the county agency was established here.”

Improving fruit yields. In the late teens, several county agents made a concerted effort to help fruit producers do a better job of raising fruit. Many farms had fruit in those days.

Whitford documents that Glenn A. Ellis, the Johnson County agent, held a demonstration for local farmers and then filed this report: “Twelve sprayed Wealthy [apple variety] trees averaged 12 bushels per tree, while the unsprayed Wealthy check tree bore 2.5 bushels, of which 2 bushels were culls. Twelve sprayed Winesap [apple variety] trees averaged about 9 bushels, while the unsprayed check yielded only 3 pecks of culls. This answers the question, Does it pay the average farmer to spray?”

Hog cholera over a century ago. One thing agents struggled to do in the early days was convince farmers they had a problem with hog cholera and needed to do something about it. In 1914, Frank Wright, Posey County agent, wrote: “Upon investigation, I found but that little vaccination was being done, and I immediately started work towards getting farmers interested in its control. Several postmortems were made in infected herds. When I would go to a man’s farm, I would have him invite his neighbors that were interested in to see the work.”

Tough sledding in hard financial times. Whitford found this report from William F. Burbank, Allen County agent, filed in 1924: “Due to the present deflated conditions on the farm, the financial aspect of Extension work has of necessity been considered one of the leading issues of Extension work. It has been rather difficult to promote Extension work unless the farmer, his wife, children of any group that may be induced to take the work, can see a more or less direct profit or benefit from new and improved methods.”

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