Courtesy Lance Cheung/USDA
For 100 years, farmers have been turning to their local cooperative extension offices for advice and news. The face of farming has changed in more ways than this service’s founders could have possibly imagined—the term “urban farming,” an actual difference between “organic” and “conventional” farming, the use of tractors and the Internet in agriculture, and a shift from rural to urban and suburban living, to name a few changes. Yet since 1914, county and state cooperative extension agents have helped to better agricultural pursuits of all kinds in their communities.
The cooperative extension is a service provided by your state’s land-grant institutions, and it’s paid for partly with your tax dollars. If you’re not already working with your local cooperative extension, here are six ways you can make use of this valuable resource.
1. Get Educated
The cooperative extension’s educational programming is possibly the greatest asset for a small-scale farmer.
“There are many examples across the country of extension publications, workshops and short courses that focus specifically on the needs of small, part-time and homestead farmers,” says Rob Hedberg, national program leader of the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture and national director of Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education. “These can be comprehensive programs that address all aspects of successfully managing multiple small-farm enterprises or as simple as a fact sheet telling how to grow a specific crop successfully with minimal inputs.”
Check out your local office’s workshop calendar to attend events from afternoon-long food-preservation workshops to multisession Master Gardener certification programs to university-farm demonstration days. The information shared at these workshops is based on the university’s latest research and technologies, equipping participants with tools for a more efficient and productive farm.
The SARE program, a USDA program that advances sustainable agriculture innovation through the provision of grants, educational materials and professional development training, is a branch of cooperative extension.
“We are actively engaged in extension in every state through our SARE state coordinators,” Hedberg explains. “These coordinators are extension employees who have responsibility for organizing sustainable-agriculture training for other extension agents and agricultural professionals in their state.”
SARE training includes national events, such as the National Conference on Cover Crops and Soil Health, and regional events, such as Georgia’s Seeds of Growth conference, focused on building a stronger local-food network. Plus, SARE fact sheets and online curricula cover just about every ag topic you could want to learn about.
Likewise, if at-your-fingertips information is what you’re after, the national cooperative extension website, eXtension.org, contains research, techniques and advice for agriculture, economics, natural resources, health, family and more in the forms of articles, videos, webinars and reader-submitted questions.
“At its heart, extension can help growers sort through the overwhelming amount of information that is now available and help producers make well-informed choices that apply to their specific situation,” Hedberg says. “One of the services that extension will provide these growers is to sort through, collect and organize reliable information that will be easy to access and apply.”
2. Fund Your Farm
Your local extension office can connect you with grants and cost-share programs for agricultural projects that are offered through the USDA, National Resources Conservation Service, state SARE and individual counties.
SARE offers grants for research and education projects that cover renewable energy, pest management, conservation tillage, pastured livestock, marketing and more. To date, more than 5,000 projects have been funded, each with the purpose of producing results that other farmers can use. SARE programs do not fund beginning farmers or offer working capital for ongoing farm operations, but rather focus on advancing techniques and technologies for sustainable agriculture.
The USDA offers funding through its Value-Added Producer Grants to process and market farm products. The Organic Cost Share Program is also administered through the USDA.
The NRCS provides conservation-related grants and cost sharing through the Environmental Quality Initiative Program, including the Seasonal High Tunnel Initiative, providing funding for a high tunnel on your farm; the Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program to develop and improve wildlife habitat; the Agricultural Water Enhancement Program to conserve surface and ground water and improve water quality; and more.
Ask your county cooperative extension agent for information about these programs.
3. Build a Demonstration Plot
Depending on your location, your agricultural university may be researching new techniques in plasticulture, organic apple production, integrated pest management or cover crops. By offering a piece of your property as a small demonstration plot, you to try out and profit from a new technique, use equipment and guidance from university researchers and educators, provide information that will help researchers in your area fine-tune new techniques, and network with area farmers who also want to learn about the method you’re trialing—all of which will benefit your farm operation. Extension agents have information about the projects of interest in your area.
4. Identify Crop Diseases and Pests
There are days when you find an unfamiliar insect has devoured your radishes or a mystery disease has knocked down your kale. It would be handy to have someone who can identify these pests—well, turns out you do! Your crop extension agent can help I.D. plant issues and suggest treatment options. This service not only benefits your farm but your neighbors’, as well, because the information your extension agent collects can help track trends and issues in your area.
Some states, like Alaska, have online submissions for insects, plants and diseases. The Citizen Scientists program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks allows farmers to submit a photo to a statewide team that responds to potential issues.
5. Network with Fellow Farmers
Whether you’re a beginning farmer or you have a few years under your belt, it’s good to know you’re not in this farming world alone. Cooperative extension activities can help connect you with others to share ideas and trials and tribulations.
6. Advise Others
The cooperative extension can’t provide its users with quality programs if it isn’t aware of the true needs of the area. It relies on you—the people who can benefit the most—for guidance.
“Extension, by design, is locally directed and responsive to local needs and priorities,” Hedberg says. “As such, there are many opportunities to engage with the local and state extension programs by participating on one of the many advisory boards the extension system uses to guide their programs.”
Additionally, 4-H is an arm of cooperative extension, giving you the opportunity to shape the agricultural experience of youth in your area, whether or not you have 4-H-age children yourself.
If you’ve never taken advantage of the free opportunities offered by your cooperative extension, this year might be the time to consider it. Find your local cooperative extension at www.csrees.usda.gov/extension or by calling your county USDA office.
About the Author: Freelance writer Lisa Munniksma is learning about sustainable living, agriculture and food systems around the world. Follow her adventures at www.freelancefarmerchick.com.