An agricultural revolutionary

Interred in a shady plot along the periphery of Woodland Cemetery — a short punt from Death Valley and a pebble’s throw from Clemson family names like Sikes, Poole and R.C. Edwards — lie the earthly remains of one of the most influential Americans whose name you may have never heard.

frank lever

Frank Lever

Asbury Francis Lever — Frank to family, friends and constituents alike — was born on a family farm near Spring Hill in Lexington County on a winter day in 1875. Within 40 years the South Carolina farm boy would transform agriculture in the United States. All it took was a stroke of a pen and a vision for the future.

As a South Carolina congressman, Frank Lever — a Clemson life trustee — would team with Sen. Hoke Smith of Georgia to author a bill that would carry both their names. The Smith-Lever Act, which became law May 8, 1914, authorized the Cooperative Extension Service, in which federal, state and county governments cooperate to extend research-based science from land-grant universities like Clemson to working people who could apply it.

The concept wasn’t new to Lever. He had seen it at work before in his native state in the tomato demonstration clubs of the Lowcountry and in the trains that took Clemson professors across the state to teach farmers and their families the best practices for growing crops, preserving food and safeguarding the land.

“As early as 1905, Clemson was publishing a weekly fertilizer bulletin and mailing it to 12,000 farmers and agricultural businesses,” Clemson President Jim Clements reminded county agents and Extension specialists at their annual meeting in December. “Special Extension trains took faculty members throughout the state.

“What happened a hundred years ago was transformational for the country,” he said. “The Clemson model became the national model.”

“The county agent is to assume leadership in every movement, whatever it may be, the aim of which is better farming, more education, better living, more happiness and greater citizenship,” he said in floor debate on the bill. “You cannot make the farmer change the methods which have been sufficient to earn a livelihood for himself and his family for many years unless you show him, under his own vine and fig tree as it were, that you have a system better than the system which he himself has been following.”

Extension was established the same year World War I broke out in Europe. It immediately went to work to help farmers increase the production of crops essential to the war effort. In the century since, the revolutionary concept of extending university-based knowledge to working people resulted in Lever’s “revolution” in crop yields. An acre that grew 24 bushels of corn in 1911 will harvest, on average, six times as much today. Extension continues to deliver research-based education in agriculture, natural resources, food safety and nutrition, economic and community development, and 4-H youth development.

Today, as in Frank Lever’s day, agriculture is the state’s largest industry. And thanks to Lever’s legacy, the next century looks just as bright.

Frank Lever photo: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, photograph by Harris & Ewing, [reproduction number, e.g., LC-USZ62-123456]

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