Having lived three-quarters of North Carolina Cooperative Extension’s history, former four-term N.C. Gov. James B. Hunt, an alumnus of N.C. State’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, has plenty to say about the agency’s value and positive influence on communities and people across the state.
A Wilson County native, Hunt started his association with Cooperative Extension as a child, earning awards for his 4-H dairy cattle projects and helping his mother prepare for home demonstration club meetings. As a young lawyer, he helped shape Extension’s early environmental education efforts. As governor, he called on Extension to help with numerous life-changing state initiatives, including award-winning efforts that helped the state recover from the devastation of 1999’s Hurricane Floyd. And today Hunt and his wife provide for 4-H beef cattle awards in his county.
Here’s what Hunt had to say to video producer Donna Campbell when she interviewed him earlier this year for a UNC-TV series celebrating Extension’s first century:
“Cooperative Extension is all over the state. We have people … in every county who work with young people, who work with farmers, who work with homeowners, who work with all kinds of people to improve our lives.
“It started out, frankly, mostly about agriculture, but it has become much more than that. It now works with all kinds of businesses. It works to improve the environment in the communities in which we live. So Cooperative Extension is there to work with the people to improve their lives economically and in terms of their health and their well-being.
“And it is one of the things that I think has done most to improve our state.
“My own personal experience was mainly on the farm. I grew up on a dairy and tobacco farm in rural Wilson County. I remember my mother being involved with the home demonstration club. … There were farmers’ wives (who) a lot of times … didn’t know enough about nutrition – they didn’t know about the vitamins and all the things that we know about now. These were clubs … in which the agents came out to the farms … and went out into different homes, and they shared … the new scientific information about child rearing, about nutrition, about how you improve your home and farm life.
“I remember my mother hosting those home demonstration clubs. When the home demonstration club was going to come to your home, everybody had to get ready for it. You cleaned the house. You cleaned the yard – everything. I helped my mother do that. And then the home demonstration agent came out and put on the program and took questions about how these women could improve their lives and the lives of their families and their children. So that was an aspect of it.
“I also saw the help that the farmers got. Now, this program, frankly, has come from the land-grant colleges started by Abraham Lincoln – it was one of the great things he did. And he did so many great ones, because he cared about the average people out there on the land. Initially, we called it the agricultural extension, and it did work primarily with the farmers, extending the knowledge that we had gained in the land-grant colleges – the scientific knowledge; the things we had discovered about how to plant different kinds of crops.
“I well remember when they developed hybrid seed corn. I was a student in agriculture when the scientists developed hybrid seed corn. It meant that a stalk of corn that theretofore had had one ear of corn could now grow two. And you could double your production and double your income! And somebody had to take that knowledge out to the farmers so they would plant this corn – maybe you would pay a little more from the seed corn, but your income from it … was much, much greater.
“So Cooperative Extension has been in the business – and it’s still in the business – of extending the knowledge we develop with our science and our research in the land-grant universities and other places out to people in the counties. It’s now not only for the farmers, it’s for the people who live out in the towns and the cities.
“I will recall when I first went back to my home county to practice law and live on a farm I remember that Cooperative Extension had just … made a commitment to improve the environment. This was a big new project – a big new aspect of their work. And … as a brand new, young lawyer in the town and in the county, I was chosen to head up our committee to study what could be done to improve the environment in rural areas in eastern North Carolina, where I lived. And we came up with a lot of ideas about what we could do. Some people at the time thought, ‘That’s not anything we are going to worry about. It may be antagonistic to economic growth.’
“It turns out the environment is something everybody wants. People want to have a good, clean environment. We want it to be pretty, to be green … Particularly the people who are doing high-technology work can live anywhere they want in the world, and they want to live in a place that’s clean and green and pretty – that people enjoy.
“So this was a new approach that Cooperative Extension took to serving the people.
“But I have to mention my experience in 4-H. Cooperative Extension works with the women, they work with the farmers, they work with the business people and they work with all kinds of folks. One of the things we all know best is their work with 4-H. 4-H is a wonderful organization that works with young people to develop their skills, their knowledge, their leadership.
“I learned about entrepreneurism – about how you have to invest your money, how you have to take care of your animals, how you have to get them bred, then get the calves and milk them and be paid by how much milk the cow gave. I would record that in my project record book. And at the end of the year, I would see how much money I earned or perhaps lost. You learn business. You learn how to keep books and to be successful economically, which is what young people need to learn.
“Now, we learned a lot of other things, because I went to the club meetings and we all participated in leadership activities. We learned speaking, and we learned parliamentary procedure. We learned a lot of things about being leaders and about being good citizens and about being healthy and respectful and all these things we want our young people to learn: to be good citizens and to be good human beings.
“I have to tell you one more story, though. Each year they have a lot of contests in the 4-H club, and in the county 4-H club, they would give awards to the students who had the best projects. … I had the dairy project, for example. … And (the student) who had the best project would get the top prize. And I lived in a county that was mostly crops – tobacco, corn, soybeans, and all those sort of things. But lo and behold when they had the annual meeting at the end of the year and they gave out all the awards, I got the award for having the best dairy project in the county. It was two months later before I found out I had the only dairy project in the county. There weren’t many dairies, and I was the only student, the only 4-H’er, with the dairy project… But I had that ribbon, and I was proud of that.
“In any event, this is important: We value our public schools and our colleges and universities, and we value taking care of our land, our green spaces, and our coast and our mountains and all these things that God gave us.
“But it is so important that we focus on developing our people, giving them the opportunity to grow and to learn and to work together and to develop a vision for the future – to really think about what they could be.
“Russell Wilson spent a lot of his life with his daddy’s encouragement thinking about … what kind of football player he could be. And he came to N.C. State University. And then although he was drafted late in the NFL draft, the Seahawks took him, and he played well. And he had this belief in what he could be. Of course, they won the Super Bowl under his great leadership and great skill as a quarterback. It’s that kind of thing that the 4-H clubs do: They encourage young people to develop their projects and work with their hands and with their minds; to develop leadership skills; to think about what they could do (and) what they might be; and to become the kind of people they ought to be.
“In a democracy, that’s what you need. … People need to learn to speak and to use parliamentary procedure skills and to express themselves and to listen to others and to work together. … That’s what we do, and the 4-H program is probably the best youth organization there is in developing leadership skills and in developing young leaders and young good citizens.
“Thank God for 4-H. Thank goodness for Cooperative Extension and all the agents who serve across our counties throughout North Carolina and across America. This is one of the unique things we have in this country. There is nothing like it anywhere in the world, and I am very proud of it.”
– Dee Shore