“What a man hears, he may doubt; what he sees, he may possibly doubt; but what he does, he cannot doubt.”

With these words Seaman Knapp, sometimes called the “father” of Cooperative Extension, neatly expressed the hands-on teaching principle at the heart of the success of its efforts to help Maine farmers – and farm families across the nation. The program offered instruction on growing productive crops and raising healthy livestock; on eating healthfully; and – by “extending” the scientific resources of the nation’s agricultural colleges – on managing farms and homes more efficiently and effectively.

This year, the Cooperative Extension celebrates a century of federally funded educational outreach. Building on decades of earlier cooperative work by agricultural societies and colleges, in 1914 Congress was persuaded that extension education merited federal support, which arrived with the Smith-Lever Act.

What has the organization meant to the people of this largely rural state? And what is its role today?

The “cooperation” in the name exists between land-grant colleges (established in the 19th century to teach future farmers), the U.S. Department of Agriculture and county extension associations. At a time when more than 50 percent of Americans lived in the countryside, and 30 percent of the workforce was engaged in farming, the extension’s earliest focus was on extending agricultural education to working farmers.

“No sooner had the College of Agriculture (as the University of Maine was then known) opened its doors in 1868 than people other than resident students began to ask for information and instruction on agricultural subjects,” agricultural historian Clarence Day wrote.

By 1910, that demand was so great that the university (Orono is still the Maine Extension’s home base) appointed its first full-time extension director. Two years later, it hired its first county agents, and two years after that, Congress began to dispense federal funding, which continues to this day.

The county agents, known today as extension educators, were – and are, along with a corps of staff and volunteers – the backbone of the program, and a big part of their task was to figure out how to persuade farmers to try new techniques and technologies.

One of the more successful early teaching strategies was the exhibit- and demonstration-based Farmers Institute. Run by agricultural groups such as the Grange or the Farmers Alliance, often in cooperation with agricultural schools, the institutes were, in effect, movable classrooms that transported exhibits and university teaching staff to rural farmers, rather than asking the farmers to come to them.

In pre-automobile days, moving materials and staff was a logistical challenge but one that railroad companies were especially well suited to handle. “Special” trains run by the Maine Central and Bangor and Aroostook railroads brought institutes to rural farmers. In 1910, for example, the Modern Farming Special hauled exhibits that demonstrated new gas-powered technology for spraying, and equipment for improved tilling, seeding and harvesting.

Exhibits and expert instructors and lecturers from the university taught the latest in veterinary science, dairying technology, potato grading and breeding, proper crop rotation and other practices intended to increase efficiency, productivity, and ultimately, the farmers’ bottom lines.

The institutes were well attended and did a good job of exposing isolated farmers to new ideas and technologies. But implementing change wasn’t always easy. Many Maine farmers distrusted “academic types” and “book farming,” as well as the business interests – including the railroads – that were promoting agricultural improvement.

During Farm and Home Week in 1938, the University of Maine celebrated the progress of extension work with a pageant that featured a re-enactment of a first encounter between a county agent and a skeptical Maine farmer: It took quite a bit of convincing for the farmer to accept that the agent had anything useful to offer.

Information, demonstration and connecting far-flung farmers were all well and good. But a farm- and college-trained county agent who could communicate the benefits of new science and technology to tradition-bound farmers, struggling to understand why their potato crops were dying or their dairy herds failing to produce, was vital to persuading farmers to actually implement changes.

“The men who act as field agents must be practical farmers,” Knapp said. “No use in sending a carpenter to tell a tailor how to make a coat, even if he is pretty well read up on coats. The tailor won’t follow.”

As the era of trains passed and the automobile age commenced, county agents took to the roads, continuing to conduct group meetings, workshops and lectures but also calling on individual farmers.

“Ideal for County Agents” read the advertisement for an early 1920s model of the Chevrolet Utility Coupe. “Quick, flexible and economical transportation is vital to the successful county agent because his real value to his territory lies in covering it thoroughly.” The car was touted for its good handling on rural roads in all kinds of weather, and it came complete with 14 cubic feet of trunk space for an agent’s often considerable gear.

And travel they did. An annual report for the Oxford County agent from the 1950s counted 149 group meetings with an average of 32 people at each meeting, plus 685 visits to farms.

The work of extension and county agents helped to increase the productivity of the American farm exponentially. To cite just one statistic from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, in 1945 it took up to 14 labor hours and 2 acres of land to produce 100 bushels of corn. By 1987, the same amount of corn could be produced with three labor hours on just over 1 acre of land.

That utility coupe would have been equally useful to the home demonstration agent, popularly called the “home demie.” She often worked jointly with the county agent on projects such as 4-H – the youth development arm of Cooperative Extension – and conducted classes on gardening, food preservation, sewing and home pest control. As America entered World War I, both home demonstration programs and 4-H grew significantly.

Extension home economists “won nationwide recognition for their community work in World War I, helped rural families cope with the Depression of the 1920s and early 1930s, took an active part in New Deal programs, and contributed to overcoming the national emergency of World War II,” according to Wayne Rasmussen’s “Taking the University to the People.”

Today, Maine has 16 county extension offices, and staff and volunteers across the state. Extension educators specialize in topics such as the maple syrup industry, aquaculture, goats and small poultry flock management, according to Maine Extension’s Executive Director John Rebar. And on the home front, its work focuses on nutrition, childhood obesity prevention and food safety.

What does Cooperative Extension mean for Maine’s new farmers, many of whom are highly educated, tech-savvy young people who grew up in cities or suburbs? What does it mean to the farmers interested in growing something other than blueberries or potatoes?

Unlike the skeptical farmer portrayed in the 1938 pageant, these new farmers are “eager to learn the latest information on how to produce, store, package and market their harvest,” Rebar said. And they are avid consumers of Cooperative Extension Web-based resources, which have replaced the printed farmers’ and home extension bulletins of old.

As in its earliest days, the Cooperative Extension still offers dozens of workshops and demonstrations each year, and “doing” remains at its core.

So here’s to a happy 100th birthday. Mainers wish you many more.