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First county Extension agent hired 107 years ago

While North Carolina Cooperative Extension has been celebrating its official centennial with its national peers throughout 2014, the state agency’s roots go deeper than that. Its first county Extension agent was hired 107 years ago this week.

Today Extension has agents working to provide reliable, research-based information to people in all 100 of North Carolina’s counties as well as to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. The first county agent was James A. Butler, who, according to the best information available, was hired on Nov. 18, 1907, to work with farmers in Iredell County.

Butler was paid by funds from the John D. Rockefeller-supported General Education Board to expand pioneering educational efforts, called demonstrations, taking place under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Agriculture on farms in several other Southern states.

Within two days of being hired, Butler had arranged for local farmer J.F. Eagles of Statesville to host the first North Carolina farm demonstration. Eagles agreed to grow 2.5 acres of corn and 2 acres of cotton according to USDA recommendations so that Butler could demonstrate to other farmers how the recommendations increased crop yields – not just in theory or in a laboratory – but under actual real-world conditions.

Eagles told others that the recommendations were key to rejuvenating the worn-out soils on his farm. “I don’t think I ever would have succeeded had it not been for the use of limestone and clover,” he said.

As Eagle’s county agent continued his work, agents were being hired to work in Rowan, Gaston, Lincoln, Union, Catawba, Mecklenburg and Cabarrus counties. According to the 1987 book Knowledge is Power, “almost without exception, the first agents were not college graduates.” Rather, they were hired because they were recognized as good farmers and community leaders.

In 1908 and 1909, presidents of southern college presidents started talking with the USDA about coordinating demonstration programs, and on July 1, 1909, North Carolina became the first state to officially sign on.

Other states followed, and in 1914, Congress passed the Smith-Lever Act, which formally founded the nationwide Cooperative Extension system among land-grant universities and the USDA. In North Carolina, Cooperative Extension is carried out through N.C. State University and N.C. A&T State University in partnership with the USDA and county governments.

Each year, North Carolina Cooperative Extension makes more than 5 million educational contacts in the areas of agriculture, family and consumer sciences and 4-H youth development, helping people solve problems, develop skills and build a better future.