ACE’s roots lie within three significant Federal legislative acts (1) the Morrill Act of 1862 providing the basis for the land-grant college system, (2) the Hatch Act of 1887 that established the state agricultural experiment stations, and (3) the Smith-Lever Act of 1914 that provided for cooperative extension work in agriculture and home economics.
The Hatch Act required Experiment Stations to issue bulletins or reports of progress so that people are informed on the activities of the agricultural experiment stations and results of their research. The Smith Lever Act enlarged the requirement for the Extension Service, specifying that it disseminate useful and practical information and encourage the use thereof. Agricultural editorial work hanged from simply issuing bulletins and circulars for experiment stations into full-blown, applied information delivered to targeted audiences by many media, advocating adoption of new materials and methods in the farms, homes, and communities, of the states.
On June 14, 1913, a year prior to the Smith-Lever Act, six individuals, either editors of publications or those in charge of publications, from six colleges of agriculture, met at the University of Illinois for a round table discussion "speculating as to the possibilities of the field and planning how we might be mutually helpful." An organization was taking form and two years later, the name American Association of Agricultural College Editors (AAACE) was adopted.
The advent of World War I created new crises for agriculture. An administrator of the U.S. Food Administration stated that AAACE members had opportunities for agricultural college editors to get needed information before the people. He said "the U.S. government has called no more strongly upon any part of the college than upon the editorial departments.” Our members responded. The stresses of this emergency called for agricultural editors and the press to work together creating a relationship that would have taken much longer to develop under ordinary circumstances. A major outcome, started before the war, was the organization of local farmers groups as sponsors for professional agricultural advisers in county “farm bureaus.” Editors worked in support of the wartime activities and to help specialist service information and program needs of the university organizers of these extension groups.
ACE magazine, the predecessor of the ACE Quarterly and the Journal of Applied Communications, started in 1919 as a mimeographed publication featuring news items, job search information, and abstracts from the annual meetings. ACE Quarterly provided a means for ACE members to prove their writing skills through thought pieces and rudimentary research articles but it was not until the evolution to the Journal of Applied Communication that articles were peer-reviewed, thereby raising the level of professionalism for the ACE organization and its members.
Started as the Exhibits Program in 1920 with three categories – best exhibit, best printed publication and best agricultural story – ACE’s Critique and Awards Program has blossomed to more than 50 classes. In addition to recognizing the best-of-the-best, C&A offers valuable critique of members’ work.
During World War II, land-grant schools were again called on to spearhead efforts to raise public awareness of the importance of food production and other war efforts. Publications, "farm and home" radio programs and other forms of communication were important in helping Americans deal with war-time rationing and shortages on the farm and in the home.
The Doane Report of the late 1940s criticized the weakness of colleges in reporting great accomplishments of agricultural research. The chief of the office of experiment stations challenged AAACE to improve its contribution to the system. He said that there is a reason why editorial departments are assigned quarters in basements or attics and were assigned nondescript chores ranging from duties as janitors to teaching English courses. In 1952, an AAACE fact-finding report recommended five areas for improvement: research, pre-service training, in-service training, professional improvement workshops and more cooperative relationships.
Implementation of the fact-finding report received a boost in 1953 with a Kellogg Foundation grant for the National Project in Agricultural Communications, a highlight of our organization. The five-year grant helped assemble and share with ACE members dozens of interpreted reports of research on agricultural communication, supported the development of and preparation of training materials on the scientific bases of agricultural communication for ACE members, and advanced communication studies at land-grant institutions and other activities to strengthen agricultural communications as a profession, especially through expanding graduate programs. Total funding in the three grants to NPAC amounted to $716,322.50 (more than $6 million in today’s currency).
Key early contributions were accepting foreign nationals into degree programs in U.S. colleges offering advanced agricultural communications study. The work of ACE members has covered five continents; several members served as advisers-consultants to help countries develop systems and staff for agricultural communication, while many shared their knowledge through workshops, seminars, training sessions, presentations and classes, study abroad programs and exchanges. ACE went international in 1952 when 28 European writers attended the Clemson University conference. In 1980, the newly formed International SIG attracted more than 400 agricultural communicators with international credentials. Today ACE members are actively engaged around the world as communicators, trainers and scholars. ACE international membership includes both individuals and country affiliates.
ACE members have been on the cutting edge of adapting new technologies to tell the stories of our institutions, beginning with print and advancing to radio in the 1920s and television in the 1950s. Today, ACE provides dozens of presentations on innovative application of new technologies and media as well as recognizes the best projects through the Critique and Awards competition. ACE also uses streaming technologies to feed sessions back to the home offices of those who cannot attend the meetings. 1993 was a land-mark year when the National Extension Technology Conference (NETC) began meeting with ACE on odd-numbered years.
In 1956 AAACE offered workshops for both members, such as the Economics Writing Workshop, and in-service workshops for Extension staff members, such as Communications Training Program Workshop. Throughout the years, ACE has focused on national and regional workshops ranging from writing, photography, graphic design to media relations, public relations and broadcast. More recent workshops include the ACE Writing Workshop in Ames, Iowa, that produced a novel titled “Pulp Feathers.” A Media Relations Made Easy workshop was presented in New Orleans in 2003 and repeated in Atlanta in 2007. And in 2005, Oxford, Mississippi hosted a writing workshop called Real People, Real Stories, Real Writing.
Thousands of aspiring agricultural communicators throughout the U.S. and beyond have learned about this professional field, and those in it, through the ACT student organization. ACE served as the founding parent organization in 1970 and has continued to support ACT chapters and members actively through national ACE programming, and through day-to-day efforts of ACE members on individual campuses.
The ACE Development Fund was set up in the '80s to encourage members to round up their dues payment so the extra $25 could be designated for professional improvement. In 1996, the first ACE auction in Cleveland raised money for the fund, which now totals $150,000 and supports three $1,500 grants each year for members delving into a wide range of topics.
In 1992, the National Research Initiative was not even on the radar for members of Congress and the deans of colleges of agriculture asked communicators for help. Dave King assembled an impact writing team to review state submissions to the National Research Institute and build a national impact statement database. The work inspired states to design their own impact sites and report results to members of Congress, state legislators, donors and clients. The impact system was not an official ACE project…but its success was based directly on the networking that ACE provided.
When the Communicator’s Handbook: Techniques and Technology was first published in 1990, it met a real need within the ACE organization, and that was as a source of training for new members and as ready-made materials for ACE members to use when they trained others back in their states. It was also used in undergraduate classrooms as a resource at various institutions across the nation. To be selected as an author for one of the chapters was an honor.
ACE members have been instrumental in developing what has become a unique and valued international resource for teaching, research and practice in journalism and communications, as applied broadly to agriculture and the food, feed, fiber, energy, natural resource, rural affairs and other aspects of it. This resource and service, based at the University of Illinois and available by online open access, now includes more than 38,000 documents and other resources about communications aspects of agriculture in more than 170 countries, ACE members have contributed and helped identify thousands of those valuable resources, which trace from the latest to those originated about 150 years ago.
The ACE Leadership Institute was founded in January 2007, to provide leadership development opportunities tailored to the needs of ACE members. So often communications and technology direction was determined by those outside and the professionals in the fields were operating more like technicians. The Institute’s goal was to elevate the skills of professionals and to promote their positions as leaders of communications and technology at their institutions. The Institute’s year-long program graduated cohorts of 16 participants each in June 2008 and June 2009.
Playing on equipment rented from a local pawn shop at the 2004 Lake Tahoe meeting, the tension Chords, made up of ACE members, has provided fun, color and a rhythmic beat to every meeting since then.