Farmers markets are brimming with local produce this time of year, but there’s one Pennsylvania product that’s always in stock — mushrooms. In fact, these edible fungi are one of Pennsylvania’s top cash crops.
But without the Penn State Agricultural Cooperative Extension, the Pennsylvania mushroom industry might not be as lucrative as it is today.
The extension, which decades ago identified abandoned limestone mines as an ideal location to grow mushrooms, was established in 1914 as part of the Smith-Lever Act. Designed to connect agricultural scientists from land-grant institutions such as Penn State with local farmers who could put research to practical use, the act created partnerships between federal, state and county governments and land-grant institutions around the country.
A century later, the cooperative extension system is still working to improve the state of agriculture across the country.
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Penn State commemorates the extension’s centennial with “The Power of Agricultural Cooperative Extension: 100 Years of Penn State Service,” an exhibition on display through Sept. 15 in the Special Collections Library in Penn State’s Paterno Library. A lecture, “The Impact of Cooperative Extension at Penn State,” is scheduled for noon to 1 p.m. Sept. 3 in Foster Auditorium in the Paterno Library.
The exhibition features photographs, publications and other documents that highlight the extension’s involvement in each of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties, as well as statewide projects.
One of those projects, which occurred post-World War II, paired Penn State researchers with mushroom farmers. The researchers discovered that the conditions in abandoned limestone mines were just about perfect for growing mushrooms.
“By repurposing something that was no longer being used, mushroom farmers got an opportunity to extend their growth,” said Jackie Esposito, university archivist.
The extension’s reach has consistently extended beyond helping farmers.
“If you wanted to grow vegetables, learn how two sew or learn how to take care of calves, you asked your ag co-op extension,” Esposito said.
Today, in addition to maintaining successful programs like 4-H, Penn State researchers are working to solve the problems of insect infestations in trees like elms and chestnuts, as well as evergreen topics like crop production.
The locavore movement also has kept researchers busy working with farmers to design ways to feature local produce within the community.
“You can pick up any number of farm-to-table initiatives and you’ll find Penn State faculty research being put to practical use,” Esposito said. “(The extension) is bringing training and education to people where they need it.”