Then and now

A few examples of historic and current Clemson Extension programs in Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester counties:

Historic

Corn Clubs for Boys

Home Demonstration agents

Tomato Canning Clubs for girls

Current

Carolina Yards Online course

Farm Accounting and Financial Analysis

Food Safety Workshop

Fact Sheets on landscaping, gardening and indoor plants, various species of trees

For more information and additional resources, go to www.clemson.edu/extension/hgic/.

The nuts and bolts of the mammoth wind turbine testing machines in Clemson University's $100 million Energy Innovation Center were first turned a century ago in boys' corn clubs and girls' tomato clubs across the state.

Clemson agriculturists would ride the trains out to teach farm families new ways to grow and preserve food. It was in the years before World War I; boll weevils, drench and drought were playing havoc with the cotton money crop and food crops.

"High tech" gasoline-powered tractors and chemical fertilizers began coming into widespread use. The farm field, in other words, was changing in front of the eyes of people who were working with traditional methods handed down over generations.

That was the birth of the Clemson Cooperative Extension Service, the model for the national cooperative extension program of teaching new agriculture skills that farm families needed to keep up with a new world.

The "Clemson Model" became the basis for the national Smith-Lever Act, authored by Georgia senator Michael Hoke Smith and S.C. Rep. Frank Lever. Lever was a Clemson life trustee and devoted to the needs of agriculture and farming interests in South Carolina and the U.S.

The act, established in 1914, formalized a state-by-state national network of educators to "take the university to the people."

Clemson Extension Service's influence persists in the Lowcountry while its mission has shifted again in today's changing climate.

Adapting to change

The turbine facility is just one example of the agriculture-based university's reach, created to drive new industry in the state riding the cusp of the emerging wind-power industry, and to help train residents to work in that industry.

The extension service, too, has been adapting techniques and programs to meet new demands. A small agriculture laboratory was built south of Charleston by Clemson College in the 1930s to support truck farming after the cotton industry collapsed on the Lowcountry Sea Islands.

Today, it's the 235-acre Coastal Research and Education Center, run in cooperation with the extension service. The center develops and teaches about sustainable vegetables and specialty crops, along with organic pest management techniques to protect them.

The days when more than 50 tomato farms operated on the Sea Islands are long gone. But the extension, and really the entire university's agricultural emphasis, fosters today's Lowcountry in subtler ways, such as exotic restaurant plates.

Charleston chefs who toured the Far East came back with produce that Greg Johnsman had never seen. They asked him if he could grow it for them.

Johnsman, an Edisto Island farmer who owns Geechie Boy Mill and mills its renowned Geechie Boy Grits, did the research to sort out what would or wouldn't have a chance of making it, and began growing crops not seen before in the region.

He has a master's degree from the university in agricultural education.

"It gave me the research mindset," he said.

Farm-to-backyard

P.J. Gartin of Charleston became a master gardener in an extension program after deciding she wanted to putter around her yard.

"I didn't really know that much about horticulture. The county agent became my best friend," she said. The interest became a passion launching her career as a gardening writer. Her first book, in fact, was written with an extension agent.

She volunteered in the extension for years on the phones to answer simple growing questions that occasionally saved lives, such as the time a man wanted to use arsenic to kill bugs in the garden and his leery wife called to ask.

The old cotton and crop farms are falling by the wayside, the land bought now to hunt or develop. Oddly, though, the number of farms is growing. Agribusiness is still a leading industry, but more and more, it's a mix of high-tech operations, timbering or niche farms custom-growing specific crops.

Clemson Extension played a role in teaching the generation of farmers that became the mentors of Lowcountry farming today.

Now the extension helps farmers and gardeners with broader scope efforts like seeking to control the kudzu bug, which devastates the grain crops that Johnsman grows.

"The knowledge has been with the farmer. Now it's shifting back to Clemson Extension," Johnsman said.

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.