Service Runs Deep
By Aimee Nielson
Photography by Matt Barton and Stephen Patton
In 1935, John Ewing, ’33, started as an agriculture agent in Hopkinsville then transferred to Grayson County a year later. There he met Vivian Muster, ’36, who was the home agent at the time. The two of them fell in love, and together they began a legacy of service that is still going strong today.
Once they were married, they moved to Green County in 1939. Vivian had to resign her position, because spouses couldn’t both work in extension. In 1940, they had a son, Jack, who eventually carried on his parents’ work back in Grayson County. Jack Ewing says his mother may have resigned her position, but she couldn’t just stop doing extension.
“Mother was always involved in some way,” he recalled. “She was always helping Dad, and she was still a very active (Extension) Homemaker. She led classes at the office and kept very busy.”
Ewing smiles as he tells stories of watching his dad, learning what extension was all about.
“Growing up, we were always going with Mom and Dad to people’s homes and back and forth to the University of Kentucky campus,” he said. “It was sort of a missionary mentality that we had in our lifestyle, and that became the focus I had.”
Ewing knew he wanted to work in agriculture, he just wasn’t quite sure where. Like many farm families back then, the Ewings created their own scholarship program. His father told him he needed to raise enough tobacco to pay for college. When he started his freshman year at UK in 1958, tuition was $35. After graduation, he went to work for International Harvester.
“I really liked the job, but I was running all over the place,” he said. “So when Dr. Ragland (John Ragland, former UK extension professor) called me and suggested I might like to work with some people in Kentucky and see things change, I realized I hadn’t been fulfilled in what I was doing. Coincidentally, the agriculture agent job was open in Grayson County.”
Jack Ewing married Shelby County extension home agent Verda Dorn in the early 1970s. She left her position, but as in the previous generation, the entire family continued their involvement in Cooperative Extension. Of extension’s 100 years, the Ewing family has been deeply involved for more than 75.
Times, They Were A-Changing
Ewing hit the ground running once he started working in Grayson County. One of the first things on his mind was the massive soil erosion in the county.
“When I got here, I knew we needed to start doing some no-till corn,” he said. “Some farmers are hard-headed, and they don’t like change.”
He can say that because he is a farmer too. He never asked anyone to try something he wasn’t willing to try himself. Many times, he’d start his own variety trials, and neighbors would drive by to see what he was doing. Eventually they would ask questions.
“I got out there on their farms, drove their tractors and showed them how to do it,” he added.
At International Harvester, Ewing had helped develop some no-till equipment. He had also worked with his dad who was very active with no-till developers from UK. Because of his background in soil science, Jack Ewing could recognize people’s problems early on and help them find ways to turn it around with the help of soil tests and management practices.
“I figure I’ve done 30,000 soil samples in my time,” he said. “You can drive all over this county and see the results of those tests by looking at the fields of farmers who implemented our recommendations. We’ve got good quality grass growing here now.”
During a volatile time when farmers faced moving away from tobacco and finding other ventures that were just as profitable, Jack helped turn farmers on to better forages and to adding more cattle. In 1971, he said there were probably about 5,000 head of beef cattle in Grayson County. Today there are more than 25,000.
“Most of those guys doubled their cow numbers after tobacco, and that helped them bring in younger members of the family,” he said. “But it wasn’t all good change. When I got here, we probably had 126 dairies, and now we’re down to seven or eight. Hog production took a hard hit in the 1990s, and now we don’t have a single farrow-to-finish operation in this county.”
The Shartzer family has had a multi-generational relationship with extension and with the Ewings. Alma Shartzer was an Extension Homemaker with Vivian Ewing back in the late 1930s, and her husband Tom often came to John Ewing for advice. Now her son Jerry and grandson Bradley work with Jack Ewing.
Alma Shartzer is 94 years young, and she still gardens, waters her son’s cattle, cans and even cooks lunch for the family nearly every day. Jerry Shartzer said no one can grow lima beans like Alma.
“Back then all most of us knew about canning was water baths,” Alma said. “But Vivian gave us lessons on the new pressure cooker.”
Jerry Shartzer said they’ve gotten quite a bit of help from extension over the years. He is a fifth generation farmer living on his family’s homeplace in a house built with plans from Cooperative Extension. Their farm, built on land from a War of 1812 land grant, has many miles of Rough River frontage.
Back in the 1980s, Jack Ewing worked with the Shartzers to establish some of the first poultry houses in Grayson County. Now they use poultry litter to fertilize the crops.
“We’ve worked with Jack quite a bit,” Jerry Shartzer said. “I bet those ladies in the Extension office hate to see me coming with my boxes of samples. But the results of all of those tests took us from running a ton of hay per acre to about three tons per acre, and we’ve doubled the amount of cattle. Daddy would be amazed if he could see the tons we turn out now, and that we don’t buy fertilizer.”
Jerry and Bradley Shartzer are grateful to have extension ready to help.
“When I run into a stump, I have Jack on speed dial,” Jerry said. “You realize how important extension has been to generations of farmers. We can be hard headed, but a good meal and a good talk with the ag agent, and we’ll soak up a little bit and admit we’re still learning. My dad once said if you know all about farming, it’s time for you to quit.”
The Next Generation
Out of all his children, Jack Ewing never thought his youngest would be the one to carry the extension torch. Kindra Ewing Jones didn’t think so either.
“We all thought my oldest brother Justin would be the extension agent,” she laughed. “I got a bachelor’s in biology from Lindsey Wilson College and then went to UK for a master’s degree in turf science.”
But about a year into her turf science degree, Jones called her dad and told him she thought she was supposed to be an extension agent.
“I saw what my dad did all my life, but there was still so much about it I didn’t know,” she said. “I needed to know the details, and when I did, I knew I wanted to do it.”
Growing up, Jones went along on farm visits with her dad just like Jack Ewing had done with his own father. She works cattle with him at home. Back when tobacco growers were just starting to use float beds, Jack would send his daughter out to farms to show them how to do it.
In 2006, Jones noticed the 4-H agent position was open in Grayson County. After she started the job in 2007, she worried what people would think.
“I was a little worried at first that people would think I got the job because of my dad,” she admitted. “But it wasn’t like that at all. I proved myself. I feel very fortunate to be working with my dad. We have a very unique relationship.”
While Jones was in high school, her mom was ill with cancer, so she and her father took care of her until she passed away. Jones said that really created a special bond with her father.
Jack Ewing choked up when he talked about working with his daughter.
“She’s from the same tree as me, and she has a really strong interest in youth development,” he said. “We work well together, and at the office it’s a totally professional relationship.”
Much of what Jones does to reach youth are not traditional 4-H activities. They still have a sewing club and a cooking club, but they don’t have a big livestock program. She organizes three 5K races in the county each year. With in-school programming, they are able to reach nearly 2,000 youth through programs like health and nutrition.
It’s not uncommon for families to pass extension down from generation to generation. Kentucky has several families with those ties. UK Cooperative Extension Director Jimmy Henning is such a legacy. His father, Ron Henning, was an agent and the state peanut extension specialist in Georgia.
Henning said going out with his father allowed him to meet people he now considers role models. He knew early on he wanted to work in extension.
“I knew what I wanted to do when I got out of college, before I even picked a major,” he said. “I wanted to be extension faculty, and I didn’t do anything that didn’t get me there.”
The senior Henning is now retired and living on the family farm in Oklahoma. Although he’s not officially working in extension anymore, Jimmy said he’s still the go-to-guy.
“Even after all this time, I can still get on the phone with my dad and talk for hours about the philosophy of extension,” he said. “That’s pretty special. It just creates more things that we have in common the older we get.”
Henning went on to explain that it’s not always a blood tie that keeps extension running strong through the generations.
“I think it’s really a land-grant thing too,” he said. “It’s fairly prevalent for faculty and staff to reach out and find young people who they want to mentor and bring along in extension. We use the family analogy a lot here in the college. Everyone needs encouragement and a hand up.”
Whether it’s parents passing extension down to their children, or faculty and staff bringing up someone who wasn’t raised in extension, for more than 100 years the Cooperative Extension Service has attracted people for one main purpose—to serve others in a way that makes their lives better.