Seeds of Knowledge and Hope: Chronicling the Contributions of Indiana Extension Agents

Purdue University Press spoke with author Frederick Whitford about his new book, Planting the Seeds of Hope: Indiana County Extension Agents During the Great Depression and World War II. Dr. Whitford has published multiple titles with Purdue University Press, which can be seen on his author page.

Q: Could you give a brief description of your book?

It’s the story of the role that extension agents played helping rural people through the dismal times of the Great Depression and the tremendous stress placed on farmers during World War II. It clearly shows what a small group of dedicated individuals could accomplish during two of the more important historical events in American history.

Q: What is the goal of your book? What motivated you to write it?

It is a continuation of the previous books written to bring to public attention the important role that agents played then and today.

Q: What are a few things that are being studied for the first time in this book?

This is the first time that this time from the Great Depression to World War II has ever been described. What makes this unique is that original source material from the extension agent’s annual reports were used to describe what they tried to accomplish across Indiana.

Q: Is there anything that shocked or surprised you while working on this project?

One important point that I was unaware of was the use of World War II Prisoners of War from Germany and Italy to work on farms in Indiana. The second surprise was the introduction by Purdue University of Hoosier Hybrid Corn to the farm community and how the new technology was introduced and accepted.

Q: As a land grant university, Purdue has a long association with agriculture, including Extension Services. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

The University was established to educate college-aged students with practical education in engineering and agriculture. The hands-on approach was to provide the skills to those graduating to allow them to better themselves not only farming but in industry as well. Early on, agricultural research was established to bring proven ideas that farmers could rely on to increase their crop and livestock yields, manage budgets, and produce more profit. What followed then was the introduction of extension specialist on campus and in each county to help bring that research to local people.

Q: You’ve published seven books on agricultural history with Purdue University Press (as part of our Founders Series).  Is there one you would recommend as a good starting point for readers?

The Grand Old Man: A Biography of William Carroll Latta describes the beginning of Purdue University and how William Latta created much of what we do at Purdue today.

Q: How were your experiences working on your books different? How were they similar?

They are similar in that it takes such a long time to collect the information, to get it organized, to write the chapters, to edit, and then design. Writing any book is more or less a labor of love. Each book is different in that the sources of information used can vary drastically.

Q: Are there any memorable experiences you’ve had because of your book(s)?

I do many after dinner talks about the history of farming in the county I am speaking at. I have so many photographs with names and places that I can bring back those that have long died. It is always heartwarming when a relative today comments that this was their grandfather, friend, or that they farm that piece of ground. I had a young girl who had never seen a photograph of her great grandfather and there he was in my PowerPoint presentation.

Q: Is there anything you wish you could add or remove or do differently in one of your books?  

Not really.

Q: Do you have plans for your next writing project?

I have a couple in mind. One is to describe the transition from horsepower to tractors. A second one is to use the rest of the annual reports written by the extension educators from after World War II to about the mid-1970s when those reports were no longer written.

You can get 30% off Planting the Seeds of Hope and other Purdue University Press book by ordering from our website and using the code PURDUE30 at checkout.