January 18, 2016

Part of the cooperative extension's mission is to teach gardening skills to people not affiliated with the university system. 

USDA/Flickr

The national Cooperative Research and Extension Services celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2014, and with age comes wisdom. The extension is like a grandparent who is passing down tried-and-true techniques for raising great vegetables. This grandparent also happens to have a PhD in soil science and can tell you what integrated pest management means. The tried-and-true part comes from scientific research, which must be repeatable and measurable. It’s less about folk remedies and more about bridging the gap between academic knowledge and practical application.

Extension and Cooperation

A law called the Smith-Lever Act passed in 1914 formalized the activities going on in agricultural organizations since the 1800s. Headquarters for most cooperative extensions sit at a state’s land-grant college. Land-grant institutions were established as a response to society’s and education’s changing focus during the Industrial Revolution and, like the cooperative extension, emphasize practical skills rather than liberal arts. A third partner in the system is the agricultural experiment station, where testing, trials and field research takes place.

The main purpose of extension, as stated in the Smith-Lever Act, was to reach “persons not attending or resident in said colleges in the several communities.” In other words, you don’t have to go to college and major in agriculture to glean knowledge from those researchers.

The term cooperative refers to the cost share structure of its funding, which is approximately 1/3 from the USDA and 2/3 from state and local sources. With that many government entities involved, the system could get bogged down in bureaucracy. However the success of extension offices lies in their grassroots approach to staffing. Over 2 million volunteers lead programs by working with county-based professionals.

What The Extension Does For You

The grass-roots model of the extension service relies on volunteers, like Master Gardeners, to carry out the work. 

UGA College of Ag & Environmental Sciences/Flickr

The six major areas of the cooperative extension’s focus are:

  • 4-H youth development
  • agriculture
  • leadership development
  • natural resources
  • family and consumer sciences
  • community and economic development

Current areas of focus align with modern life and popular trends, including application of science and technology, helping youth break the poverty cycle, responding to disasters, and making resources widely available online.

Extension.org features “Ask An Expert,” a space to pose questions that extension agents answer. Some examples recently posted include “Is it safe to put rhubarb leaves in the compost?” and “What is eating my peas?” along with a photo of nibbled pods, and “How do I thin carrots?” Master Gardeners are extensively trained volunteers who answer questions at your local extension office. A quick phone call can connect you with a real person who will help you solve the great mysteries of farming and gardening, like what animal left its droppings on your porch.

Publications are easy to understand and easy to find. For example, a quick look on Extension.org under the resource area “Small and Backyard Flocks” leads to an introductory article that covers the basics. The backyard flocks page also includes links to other well-respected resources like ATTRA, and just another click away is a four-page publication on poultry in urban areas. You may have heard the phrase, “visit your local extension office” so many times it’s become mind-numbing, but it really is the best way to find materials on exactly your growing zone and connect with others who can share similar experiences. It’s like tailgating without the hometown gossip, or like Googling with a more personalized approach. Workshops and seminars provide a literal and metaphorical toolbox of skills, knowledge and materials. I attended one on growing sweet potatoes that included 20 slips to get started.

Education can be as informal as a quick question-and-answer phone call with a Master Gardener or as involved as a certification course. I spent the fall of 2013 in the Kentucky FarmStart Course in Madison County, Ky. This 10-week series introduced business planning to small-scale farmers of all types. My classmates were beginning farmers who were learning to grow their distinctive and diverse products such as pawpaws, alpaca, sorghum, lavender and even good ol’ cattle. We created our own business plans that identified various enterprises and evaluated each one individually to analyze profitability. The experts who taught us came from the extension office, universities and from the community. Classes covered technical assistance, lending options, insurance, horticulture, animal science, soils, marketing, business plans, farm safety and informal networking conversations over lunch.

Changing With the Times

As more people want to grow food in the city, the cooperative extension is paying more attention to urban agriculture than ever before. 

Sergio Ruiz/Flickr

Extension offices follow not only an education-based but also a service-based model. They adapt to meet their customers’ needs. Over half of the world’s population now lives in cities. The age we live in is no longer manufacturing-based but information-based. Nevertheless, human relationships and the relevance of the educator remain essential to the extension’s goals. I live in the city and my extension office is just a couple of miles away. They have analyzed my soil samples and given me free seed packets. Some of the volunteer Master Gardeners in my area excel in running community gardens. They spread knowledge and share the bounty of their gardens with their neighbors in our city’s food deserts. Others are leading the movement to incorporate native plants and pollinator habitat into urban gardens. My horticulture agent spends the majority of her time working with schools to grow gardens and helps pave the way for local farm food to be served in school cafeterias.

Rex McBride, Natural Resources Agent for the Cooperative Extension in Boone County, Ky., explains that historically, one goal of extension agents was to earn the trust of the rural farmer, spouse and children: “They may not listen to a professor, but they would listen to a buddy down the road.” Agents have to become the buddy down the road, if they aren’t already, so it is important that they live where they work and understand the community as an insider.

In the early days, agents made visits to rural farms by horseback or motorcycle. Family and consumer science agents would approach the wife with canning tips. 4-H agents would sign up the kids for clubs. After the family was won over, the agricultural agents would have a better chance of being taken seriously by the farmer, who may have good reason to be suspicious of government programs.

Traditions change, and so has the role of the cooperative extension. Today, the cooperative extension is as active in urban areas as it is in rural ones, but it’s still the best-kept secret in many places. Find your new BFF (best farm friend) by using this interactive map to connect with your local extension agent.


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