The University of Nebraska was founded in 1869 as a land-grant educational institution, established by the 1962 Morrill Act. Historically, it is evident that the University of Nebraska has taken that land-grant mission seriously.
Communicating agricultural information to Nebraskans had its first historical mention in 1887, when Lewis E. Hicks published "Irrigation in Nebraska" — the first Experiment Station bulletin. The Agricultural and Environmental Sciences Communication program resides in the Experiment Station building, constructed in 1899, on the East Campus of the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. Much of the program's history has taken place in this building. It is now called the Agricultural Communications Building.
The land-grant mission expanded when the Cooperative Extension Service was established in 1914 with the passage of the Smith-Lever Act. Since 1887, historical records show there has been an ongoing commitment to communicating agricultural information to those individuals and groups who would benefit by that information. As years passed and research progressed, the information communicated has expanded to include agriculture, the environment, energy, human nutrition and many other areas. The vehicles for communication also have expanded.
George Round, a graduate of the University of Nebraska's College of Agriculture, began writing news stories for the College of Agriculture as a student in the late 1920s. He began a media career with the College of Agriculture as Extension editor in 1933, expanding the college's informational outreach through print, radio, television and publications. The "Farm Facts and Fun" radio program was started by Round; he also founded a television series — "Backyard Farmer" — which has been in annual production since August 3, 1953. Round was appointed the first director of public relations for the university in 1945.
Ralston J. Graham was hired as Experiment Station editor in 1947; J. P. Holman was appointed station editor in 1967.
The Department of Information was founded in 1956, handling information work for the Experiment Station and the Extension Service. This department combined the College of Agriculture's information services into one unit. The unit included press, radio, publications, television, visual aids, printing and distribution.
In 1960, the Department of Information moved into the Agricultural Communications Building, which was built in 1899 as the Experiment Station. The building was large enough to house the printing and mailing operation, which was located in the basement. Extensive building renovations included an acoustically treated radio studio on the second floor. Today, the building also houses a state-of-the-art television studio.
The Department of Information's name changed in 1973 to more accurately reflect its functions, which included teaching. The department became the Department of Agricultural Communications.
Agricultural journalism courses were offered in the College of Agriculture as early as the 1920s; in the College of Agriculture of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, The First Century (Elvin F. Frolik, Ralston J. Graham, June 1987), the following is included: "Agricultural journalism is now taught in the College of Agriculture. For several years a course was offered by the Extension Service for … students who planned on going into agricultural extension work upon graduation." The 1926 college bulletin listed four courses: agricultural journalism (fundamentals in applied writing), agricultural editing, advanced feature writing and advanced agricultural editing.
The university's first agricultural journalism graduate was Glenn Buck in the class of 1927. He went on to be publisher of Nebraska Farmer and was a rancher. Agricultural journalism courses were discontinued before the Department of Information was organized. For a time, the department did teach a course in "communications skills."
In 1964, Jean Aiken was assigned to the Department of Information to teach Information 100 — Technical Writing. Aiken had joined the English Department in 1961 and taught English 100 (also Technical Writing) on East Campus until the English Department discontinued the course in 1964. Aiken's teaching line was then transferred to the Department of Information. The Department of Information became a teaching department at that point. Aiken resigned in 1968, replaced by Virginia Book. The teaching role became more important in 1968 when the English department in the College of Arts and Sciences changed its freshman composition course (English 1 and 2) to a literature course. That shift was not popular with the College of Agriculture faculty, who believed students needed all the writing experience they could get. Dissatisfaction with the change to freshman English led to a College of Agriculture study committee recommending that English 1 and 2 be dropped as a requirement for agricultural students. The faculty voted to substitute six hours of composition and writing (Information 100 and an additional course) for English 1 and 2. Information 100 was expanded from two to three credit hours, but funding failed to develop for the additional course. Mabel Strong, an English Department staff member, taught English 100 in Agricultural Hall from 1947-1958. From 1958-1961, this teaching responsibility was shared by English Department teachers, including Ned Hedges, Gene Hardy, Patricia Abel and Marjorie Leafdale. Information 100 was re-designated Agricultural Communications 200 when the Department of Information's name was changed in 1973.
The Department of Information's first viable student club was Agricultural and Home Economics Communicators of Tomorrow (AHECT), which was organized in 1971 as an extension of the professional group — American Association of Agricultural College Editors (AAACE). The club gained campus recognition through publication of East Side Story , issued three times each year as a supplement to the Daily Nebraskan . The supplement provided news coverage of East Campus and was the brainchild of Mike Wirth, an agricultural journalism major from Nebraska City. Faculty advisors for the club were Janet Poley and Ralston Graham. East Side Story was published for two years, then succumbed to financial stress. A previous publication, Cornhusker Countryman , ceased publication in 1952, also due to funding issues.
In 1964, Information 100 (Technical Writing) had its beginning in the Department of Information; also in 1964, the Department of Information became a teaching department.
From 1966-1973, the first international work was conducted by the Department of Agricultural Communications (Nebraska Mission in Colombia with Instituto Colombiano Agropecuario).
During the 1970s, the first public research conducted by the Department of Agricultural Communications was published: "Farmer/Rancher Perceptions of Channels and Sources of Change Information."
In 1973, the name of the Department of Information changed to the Department of Agricultural Communications. In 1992, the Department of Agricultural Leadership, Education and Communication formed, merging Agricultural Education, Vocational Education, Leadership, and Communication academic programs into one department.
The Agricultural and Environmental Sciences Communication program has grown and changed in the last two decades.
Between 1998 and 2000, faculty in the Department of Agricultural Leadership, Education and Communication (ALEC) studied the Agricultural Journalism curriculum before proposing it as a major within the department.
In 2000, the ALEC Agricultural Journalism major was approved by curriculum committee in the UNL College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources (CASNR). Revisions followed shortly thereafter. The program at this time was supported by one tenure track faculty member (.075 instructional FTE). Initially, although a Bachelor of Science degree, this program was created jointly with the College of Journalism and Mass Communications (CJMC), and included a required 38 hours of coursework in journalism and mass communications, 43-44 hours of College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources core requirements, 9 credits of ALEC departmental core program courses, and one of three option areas where students completed the remainder of their credit requirements with a combination of CASNR agricultural sciences courses and CJMC courses.
Since 2000, changes have taken place in the academic discipline of agricultural journalism at the national level. Leading researchers in the field of agricultural communications noted that while historically agricultural journalists were often land grant university scientists who focused on communicating their research to lay audiences (Boone, et al., 2000), "today, agricultural communicators include those who provide the news as well as those who advocate, publicize, and promote on behalf of agriculture and natural resources organizations in the private and public sectors" (Irani & Doerfert, 2013). Additionally, "the skill set of agricultural communications practitioners has come to range from traditional journalistic writing and reporting to media production, print and web design, social media, public relations, advertising and marketing. This shift in the skill set of the modern agricultural communications practitioner has been made necessary even essential, as a result of the major changes in audiences for agricultural information" (Irani & Doerfert, 2013).
In 2009, the Agricultural Communications program merged with the Department of Agricultural Leadership, Education and Communication.
In April 2010, the Department of Agricultural Leadership, Education and Communication (ALEC) was reviewed by a Review Team in accordance with the University's Academic Program Review and National Institute of Food and Agriculture review requirements. The Review Team provided the following review recommendations related to the then Agricultural Journalism degree program:
- The goals to strengthen the "Ag Journalism" program.....will provide expanded career opportunities for future ALEC students.
- Integrating Educational Media (formerly Communication and Information Technology) unit into ALEC creates capacity for value added experiences for students.....
- The "agricultural journalism" program should be renamed......
In 2013, leading scholars Irani and Doerfert noted a well-known growing disconnect, "what some have termed a 'green divide' between those in agriculture and members of the general public" (p. 8). The National Research Council report, Transforming Agricultural Education for a Changing World (2009), called for undergraduate programs to prepare a workforce ready to address "some of the most complex and urgent problems facing society" (p.1) which include the growing world population, increasing pressure on the global food supply, a citizenry faced with multiple competing sources of information about the food system. This call indicated the need for a broader perspective and consideration of communicating about scientific agricultural and natural resources issues. Students whom the program could serve well may not consider studying in this program because they do not "see" themselves as agriculturalists, or do not envision a career in natural resources the way they conceive it. The NRC report notes, "the pool of potential candidates for the agricultural disciplines is no longer a relatively homogeneous group of young people who grew up on farms" (2009, p. 4) and points out that it is incumbent upon educators to assist students in making the connections between important societal issues related to food and a degree in a scientific agricultural field.
In 2013, the Agricultural Journalism name was changed to Agricultural and Environmental Sciences Communication (AESC).