Do you need help determining what bug is eating your tomatoes? Do you want to bring your horse home but aren’t sure where to locate your barn? Are you worried about food poisoning when you try to can this summer? All of these questions—and so many more!—can be answered by your local cooperative extension agency.
Staffed by local experts with boots-on-the-ground experience, this extension office is tasked with disseminating science-based agricultural information to anyone who asks for it.
One of the most underutilized farmer resources throughout the nation, extension offices were solely created to provide information for those interested in or new to agriculture. Though the definition of agriculture today may be vastly different from what it was in the late 1800s when the agricultural revolution began, the mission of extension offices around the country remains the same: to provide research-based education to those interested in agriculture.
Extension is directly affiliated with land-grant universities (also called land-grant institutions or land-grant colleges)—schools of higher education that received federal support—in the form of land and funding. The purpose of these schools was to teach agriculture, science, engineering and military science. Additional congressional acts allowed for the funding of agricultural experiment stations and the dissemination of information gleaned from research conducted at these stations.
Extension was formalized by Congress in 1914, when more than 50 percent of the U.S. population lived in a rural area and 30 percent of the workforce was engaged in agriculture. Today, less than 2 percent of Americans make their living farming and only 17 percent live in “rural” areas, but extension’s mission to disseminate agriculture information remains the same.
There is one land-grant institution in every state and territory in the U.S., including the District of Columbia. Some states have more than one. This is great news for hobby farmers. There’s an extension office in or near most of the nation’s nearly 3,000 counties.
An extension office is staffed by land-grant institution professors and educators (formerly called agents) whose sole job is to help farmers—of any size—achieve more success. Each of these agents is a specialist in their area—with regards to interest and geography.
Extension educators offer a variety of services based on the county in which they’re located. This ensures that the information you receive is specific to your area, whether that encompasses growing periods, plant identification, pest and disease management, local water and zoning requirements, and so much more.
Two of the most recognizable extension programs are 4-H and the Master Gardener program; 4-H encompasses significantly more than livestock (though that is a key component!) with all sorts of projects available—writing to riding to cooking to welding and everything in between.
No matter what project a student chooses, this program is specifically designed to foster leadership in its youth participants.
Though it can vary by county, Master Gardener training often includes completion of an application, attendance at educational classes, completion of an exam and 40 hours of volunteer service within their community.
Extension on the West Coast
Extension services offerings vary across the country, depending on the organizational systems within the university, says Tammy Barnes, extension field faculty in the animal and rangeland department at Oregon State University. Barnes has a unique understanding of how they differ: Prior to her move to Lake County, Oregon, she was the cooperative extension associate for the University of Kentucky’s College of Agriculture, Food and the Environment in Lexington. In that role, she helped Kentucky’s county extension agents with water quality and manure management programming, as well as with consultation.
Though extension programs are vast and varied, in general, says Barnes, the Southern states have stayed truer to the ag-related model on which they were based. Now located nearly 2,300 miles away from the heart of horse country, Barnes’ interaction with stakeholder (those who are seeking information) often centers on providing science-based information on things like fish effluent composition and land application, lawn and fruit tree diseases, and irrigation trials.
However, her expertise areas still include sage-grouse habitat and riparian areas, grazing and equine. “I also assist with youth education efforts in soil science, water education and animal nutrition,” Barnes says. “I also try to get out and help my community natural resource folks when they do stream projects in the summer and fall. Fall is the time most folks ask for help with soil samples and pasture seeding recommendations. In late fall, winter and early spring, I try to have informational programs on a variety of topics about soil health and irrigation.
“My programs are driven by conversations with stakeholders, natural resource professionals, other field faculty (we try to collaborate as much as possible), and formal need assessments.”
The Lake County area is in southeastern Oregon and in the Northern Great Basin of the U.S. “It’s a high desert and sagebrush-steppe ecosystem,” Barnes says. “I provide technical support and ag education to the local prison’s incarcerated adults who participate in the multi-state ‘Sagebrush in Prisons’ project. This program grows sagebrush for post-fire restoration projects in the Western states. This is one of my favorite projects because the inmates receive ecology and ag education, and help with rehabilitation through positive social impacts.”
Bob Coleman, associate extension professor with the University of Kentucky, deals primarily with equine-related issues. It’s not uncommon for horse owners to reach out to him for assistance with identifying what forages are in a pasture and how to better manage grazing areas.
“I often help with forage stand management, which includes soil testing of pastures and fertilizer recommendations, and weed control options that may include herbicide,” he says. “This starts with identifying the weeds that need to be controlled.”
What he adds next is particularly poignant and what makes the extension office so valuable: “Extension agents can also identify any particular cost-share opportunities that may be available in their [the landowner’s] county. Some of these are state, some federal, but agents can help navigate what is available and when applications are due.”
Some financial aid assistance requires the landowner to obtain additional education. The extension office can assist here, as, well, Coleman says. Often the educational programs needed or required to receive the financial aid are given by the extension office.
If a landowner is interested in growing hay, for example, agents can assist with hay analysis: everything from loaning a forage probe to advising on the lab to use for the analysis. By showing due diligence, a landowner is more likely to obtain financial aid.
The extension office is a great resource to find out what’s going on in the county. “The agents can often offer guidance on any regulations related to livestock on the property and the location of facilities,” Coleman says.
“Facilities” can mean everything from milking parlors to manure pits and everything in between. Incorrectly locating a building can mean more than it just catches the prevailing winds. It can mean costly reconstruction if it’s located in a riparian zone or other area where runoff is a concern.
The questions Coleman receives are often season-centric. In the spring, he’s often asked for assistance with mud management: gate placement, high-traffic pad design and construction, pasture management and how to set up rotational grazing.
He’s also often consulted on arena and facility design.
Summer and fall often include questions about hay analysis and prepping pastures for renovation, as well as dry lot creation for metabolically challenged horses. He’s often also asked about how to nutritionally care for healthy horses when pasture is scarce.
In colder weather, Coleman is often asked to assist with locations of run-in sheds to block cold winds as well as how to keep horses comfortable as temperatures plummet. During the darker months, Coleman also focuses heavily on presenting seminars and clinics that are of interest to horse owners—everything from tack and bitting to how to stay safe on trail rides.
Extension in the Northeast
County extension offices in the Northeast offer many of the same opportunities as those in other areas of the county but are geared very specifically to the growing season, pests and specific to the region.
Michael Westendorf, an extension specialist and professor at Rutgers, New Jersey’s land-grant university, notes that county agents offer lot of seasonal information to animal owners and growers in the Northeastern part of the U.S., often in the form of electronic newsletters and articles.
“I’ll write a newsletter article that addresses how to make sure you have enough feed and what to do if you don’t; how to keep water open or winter shelter,” he says. This information can be especially helpful to those new to the area or new to animal husbandry in an area of the country where winters can be nothing short of brutal.
Lots of people now own backyard chickens, even in more urban areas, so most county agents are able to advise on everything from cold-hardy breeds to adequate shelter and possibly on zoning requirements!
As the growing season is short, the spring focuses heavily on pasture walks, targeted to land and animal owners. Extension educators literally walk fields with property owners or offer a more-inclusive walk where the public is invited in an educational setting. Also available online, these walks focus on what types of forage and weeds are in a pasture and how to eradicate them safely.
Extension focuses heavily on collaboration, so a weed specialist is often brought along in these pasture walks to assist in weed identification. A Natural Resources Conservation Service employee may also attend to talk about everything from soil health to water infiltration.
Westendorf is quick to point out that the role of extension is so much more than simply providing information: Extension educators are some of the best-connected people in the county. If you’re looking for a mentor or someone to help advise you on a new-to-you agricultural endeavor, it’s worthwhile to ask your county agent if they can put you in touch with someone who is more established in your area or exploration.
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2023 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.