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Merced County celebrates 100 years of ag cooperation

For three of Merced County’s main agricultural organizations, 2017 is a big year. It’s the 100th anniversary of the Merced County Farm Bureau, the Merced County Cooperative Extension Service and 4-H programs throughout the area.

Farming was going on locally for more than 65 years before these agencies were formed but the cooperation over the last century between the entities has enabled agriculture to flourish. Sarah Lim, Merced County Courthouse Museum director, says agriculture definitely is interwoven into the history of the county.

Merced County was settled in 1855 and some of its first settlers farmed for the foothill gold miners, growing mostly wheat. In the early days, they were called “sky farmers” because they depended solely on Mother Nature for its lifegiving rain. In the 1880s the Crocker Huffman irrigation system was developed for northern Merced County and intensive farming took off in the late 19th century, Lim explains.

“Farming touches almost everyone’s life in Merced County,” Lim says. “You are either related to someone in farming or have a friend doing it. It was the chief economy of the county and still is.”

Shortly, three rooms of the main floor of the historic Merced County Courthouse Museum at 21st and N Streets will be devoted to the group’s centennial observance. And special celebrations and observances are in the works as well. The free exhibits run from Aug. 17 through Feb. 26, according to Lim.

To establish the farm bureau, the county’s Board of Supervisors had to give its blessing. And establishment of the University of California-based Cooperative Extension Service was a must. UC farm advisers quickly set up 4-H programs throughout the county.

Breanne Ramos, Merced County Farm Bureau executive director, isn’t sure how many people were involved in 1917 with the fledging group. Now it has about 1,200 members throughout Merced. It remains predominantly engaged in agriculture.

“It’s a tremendous feat to have been able to celebrate 100 years,” Ramos says, “given the fact ag has suffered a number of hardships over the years. The farm bureau’s members are so resilient and determined to work in the community they love.”

Ramos said Farm Bureau members are working on gathering minutes from its first board meetings and compiling early copies of the newspaper it has published for many years.

Over the century, the Farm Bureau has helped build the original Exchequer Dam which holds this area’s watershed. They have always spoken on issues confronting agriculture and helped establish the Williamson Act which gives tax breaks to farmers for keeping their land in production rather than selling it for commercial and residential development, Ramos said. Most recently the Farm Bureau was involved in development of the county’s comprehensive groundwater management ordinance.

“We’ve always been an advocate for ag whether it’s farming, ranching or dairy,” Ramos says. “Whenever ag is in play, we’re there to be its voice.”

Maxwell Norton of Merced was a county farm adviser for 36 years, specializing in tree fruit and wine grapes, before retiring. He worked with Cooperative Extension and headed the extension office after Richard Mahacek retired.

“A hundred years ago the University of California started an extension program in California. We needed to start the Farm Bureau and get a commitment from the Board of Supervisors to support the program. Over the last 100 years the UC farm advisers conducted a wide array of ag research on all kinds of subjects. What’s interesting is they are still responding to the critical problems of the day,” Norton says.

It’s fun to look back at the problems farmers faced way back then. Many things now considered commonplace were major obstacles, but the UC Cooperative Extension Service could quickly bring the scientific power of the UC and the USDA to bear, Norton says.

“That was huge,” Norton says. “People were on their own prior to 100 years ago. They just had to try things and hope for the best. But then they could plug into science that was coming out of UC. This was transformative for agriculture. Ag way back then was powered by brawn; ag has been transformed to be powered by technology. One hundred years ago who could have imagined the technological changes we have seen?”

Norton is hoping the UC’s exhibit will include old scientific instruments and a large volume of pictures being gathered. A UC archivist has been gathering material for the historical exhibit.

Mahacek, the 4-H adviser emeritus, says the county’s 4-H has been a part of Cooperative Extension all these years. In 1918, a year after its formation, 4-H clubs had been formed in Dos Palos and Hilmar, soon spreading to other parts of the county. Part of the archival material to be exhibited are 4-H weekly reports from 1917 onward.

The first farm advisers here made contact with local farmers and urged them to let their children take part in 4-H projects. Mahacek said farmers soon saw the benefits of 4-H through their children’s projects; about 1925 they started recruiting volunteers to help with the youth program.

From the late 1920s through the 1940s and 1950s, many 4-H groups were project-based, focusing on specific projects such as clothing or dairy. Later, when community groups were formed, the scope broadened.

Mahacek, 66, has seen young 4-H members grow and become productive adults. He’s now working with the third generation of 4-H participants.

“It’s not just about raising animals,” Mahacek says. “It’s about the life skills, the presentations and demonstrations they create, being able to conduct meetings and learn recordkeeping.”

Now there are 1,200 4-H members, most from ages 9 to 19 in 20 groups throughout Merced County. 4-H members don’t have to come from a farm or raise a farm animals; the subjects they explore can include modern innovations such as robotics or rocketry, Mahacek explains.

Mahacek grins while mentioning organizers of the 4-H centennial exhibit have an enviable problem: so many photos at their disposal that all cannot be used. He hopes 4-H members from years ago will share online their stories of early programs for the upcoming exhibits at the courthouse and the Merced County Fair.

Today’s 4-H programs include beef and dairy cattle, weed control, forestry, food and nutrition, woodworking and electricity, Mahacek says.

On Aug. 20, the county’s 4-H programs will have a picnic and display at Merced’s Courthouse Park adjacent to the museum. That will include hands-on activities for prospective members. Lim is hoping there will be a display of vintage farm equipment from a century ago.

“It (4-H) can become a multi-generational thing. It’s as true as it was 100 years ago; these principles are still valid. It promotes learning, trying new things, with a heart for service, friendship and loyalty,” Mahacek says.

— Doane Yawger of Merced is a semi-retired newspaper reporter and editor.