Agricultural extension has been around in some form since 1800 B.C. Through this collaborative model between the government and local universities, everyone from expert farmers to beginner gardeners can get free support rooted in relevant ag research.
Taking research onto the farm
Around the world, agricultural extension helps people grow food by sharing research, weather information, techniques and technologies, and more. In many cases, extension is part of national strategies to strengthen economies and reduce hunger and poverty. In the 1800s, the word “extension” started being used for the practice of “extending” information from universities to farmers. But information was being disseminated to farmers long before this, with evidence from 1800 B.C. in China and Mesopotamia.
In the U.S., modern extension services began in the early 1900s, with a partnership between the Department of Agriculture and a network of prominent universities across the nation to help farmers access expert advice. Today, extension services in the U.S. helps growers use the latest information to improve their farms and gardens.
Making a tough task a little easier
Growing things isn’t easy, whether you do it for work, hobby, or home consumption. Every year is different, and there’s a limited and time-sensitive growing season in which farmers can learn by doing, giving them just one or maybe two times a year to try things out and learn from their experiences. Because of this, the USDA defines a beginner farmer as someone who has farmed for 10 years or less. Even for more advanced farmers, knowledge is always developing. The job of extension agents is to translate that research into practical actionable information for different growers’ goals and skill levels.
Since every context is different, extension agents are based locally — usually there will be one dedicated to your county. That way they can help farmers and home gardeners make decisions about their crops based on the local context.
From landscaping for pollinators to identifying pests
Extension includes business-oriented and large-scale services for farmers, as well as tons of offerings for home gardeners. You can get support on how to make your lawns use less water, or to landscape for pollinators. Local labs offer more reliable soil testing than a home test kit for a comparable price, allowing you to find out whether there are any nasty heavy metals in your soil, and whether it’s fertile enough for your plants to thrive.
Whether you’re at the planning stage, or trying to trouble-shoot issues in your veggie garden, extension services have the local expertise and latest knowledge needed to guide you. They can help you figure out what to plant when, how to amend your soil, and provide diagnostic support to help you understand what pest or disease your plants are suffering from.
If you think you want to dive into beekeeping or raising poultry in your backyard, extension services can help with that, too. And many provide support on how to preserve the foods from your garden, especially when it comes to safe canning practices.
I’m sold - how can I find my extension agent?
How you can access agricultural extension services depends on your state, as does which services are offered where. Use this list to look up your state office and their ongoing events, information, and other offerings. If you’re looking for more specific local information, look up your county representative. Overall, make it your business to learn more about what your extension office has to offer. And reach out to them for help if you need something!