by Rebekah L. Fraser
"They are usually surprised by what problems we could have helped them solve or avert if they had known about us sooner," says Rick VanVranken.
VanVranken is a county agricultural agent and county extension department head for Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Atlantic County in New Jersey. Rutgers is one of 74 land-grant institutions in the U.S. During his many years in this role, VanVranken has noticed that it often takes several years for new farmers to discover and understand the function and role of land-grant universities, ag experiment stations and extension.
"Once the resources and programs of the Cooperative Extension System are discovered by local residents, and even across the county governments with which we cooperate, there are often proclamations about us being a best-kept secret," he says.
The best-kept secret of farmers in the know, the Agricultural Cooperative Extension System was put in place to support farmers nearly 100 years ago. Extension programs operate at the state and county level, and are run by land-grant universities. Cooperative extension supports producers of food and fiber with an on-the-ground delivery system of knowledge and locally relevant information that is often crucial to their success. The system is unique to the U.S.
"I truly think that America's global preeminence is largely due to the ability to translate discovery and deliver that information to the end user the way that extension does," says Sonny Ramaswamy, director of the USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA). Ramaswamy, who grew up in India and has traveled around the world, knows what it's like to live without it. "Other countries are coming to the U.S. to learn how extension is done in this country," he adds.
How extension works
The nationwide educational network known as the Cooperative Extension System has an office at every land-grant university in each state or territory, plus a network of local and regional offices. At each office, experts provide useful, practical, research-based information to agricultural producers.
As the federal partner in the Cooperative Extension System, NIFA provides federal funding and, through program leadership, helps the system identify and address current issues and problems.
At the national level, efforts to bring together the broad community of researchers and farmers have resulted in a crowd-sourced website called eXtension (pronounced e-extension). On the site (www.extension.org
), experts in a given field or topic form "communities of practice." The variety of communities of practice is wide and includes honeybees, organic vegetable production, dairy, livestock, etc. A community of practice can include members from all over the nation. If someone from California has a problem and they post a question, extension specialists and agents from around the country can respond.
Unlike an online forum, blog or wiki site, where anyone can post information without verifying its correctness, curators within each community of practice actively participate in ensuring that the information at eXtension.org is relevant and correct. "People may provide videos, articles, links to resources and [other] things, but at the end of the day it's powerful because there are professionals who curate every submission to make sure that the information is correct," explains Ramaswamy.
The site was made possible with funding from Congress, the private sector and land-grant universities. All of the extension directors from the country's 74 land-grant universities contribute to the site.
State ag and local extension
At the state and local levels, the Cooperative Extension System offers an array of programs, including workshops and on-farm consultation and testing. Offerings vary by state and by county, and are generally tailored to the needs of producers in each area. Programs for growers and farmers include:
. Production system evaluations.
. One-on-one consultations and site reviews to assist in variety selection and identification of weeds and insects.
. Integrated pest management scouting and advising.
. Training in pesticide application and safety, which allows growers to obtain recertification and maintain required applicator licenses.
. Good Agricultural Practices training and compliance.
. Education in postharvest issues like packaging, cooling and extending shelf life.
. Business development, marketing and promotion.
. Farm management, finance and estate planning.
. Delivering new research via outreach programs: annual twilight meetings during the growing season at area farms; annual grower conferences at county, regional and statewide levels; lecture-based presentations of new and innovative ideas, issues or upcoming/emerging technologies; and webinars.
Heather Darby of the University of Vermont says extension programs often vary from year to year, but the topics are focused on what's needed at that time. "Last year, there was a conference on greenhouse and high tunnel production to extend the growing season, because that's a very popular emerging practice for farmers," she says.
In Arkansas, where agriculture is responsible for one in six jobs, the University of Arkansas (UA) Cooperative Extension Service plays a major role in keeping the state's economic engine running.
The UA Extension plant clinic offers ELISA tests for specific antibodies, general microscopy and crop screens, which test for viruses, fungi and bacteria in horticulture and row crops. Martha Sartor of UA Extension says, "Many clinics nationwide charge fees for some of these tests, but our clinic does not charge growers for these tests." The university's soil sampling program is also free to Arkansas producers. While other state programs may have to charge for testing and other services, most of the educational programs are offered free of charge and are open to the public.
UA's nationally known horticulture plant breeding program is based at the Fruit Research Station at Clarksville, with testing of developments at research centers in Hope and Fayetteville, Ark. Output from the fruit breeding and fruit variety testing programs is used to develop lists of recommended fruit varieties for commercial fruit growers and homeowners in Arkansas. The state is also part of the MarketMaker program, which helps match agricultural producers with existing specialty product markets in 19 states.
Rutgers' new Food Innovation Center works with farmers and food businesses in creating value-added products from New Jersey agricultural products. In New Jersey and elsewhere, cooperative extension offers additional programs for producers of value-added products, including: competitions for value-added products (e.g., wine), award programs for top products in the state, and food safety and packaging education.
Education via NGOs and nonprofits
Extension programs are also run by independent organizations, like the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA), which holds two large, well-attended conferences each year. Each state chapter of NOFA also offers its own educational workshops throughout the year. Other organizations that provide noncredit education for farmers include Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA) in Massachusetts, the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA) and the Organic Seed Alliance, which is based in Washington but offers services and education in partnership with organizations throughout the country.
Darby says that in small states, cooperative extension programs often vie for the same resources and grants as other agricultural organizations. "In Vermont, we try to work together as closely as possible to include each other in programs and grants, to communicate with each other so we're putting the producer first and really understanding what they need and what organization can cover that the best."
How to take advantage of extension and other educational programs
Once you know where to look, it's easy to find the resources. Contact your local county extension office to obtain services and ask to be placed on a newsletter, mailing or email list. Some extension agents send text messages reminding producers of upcoming meetings. To learn about upcoming programs and workshops, check your state university or local land-grant university website, as well as state department of agriculture and farm bureau websites, and websites for other nonprofit agricultural or educational organizations. Look for advertisements in newspapers, online agricultural magazines, and even social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter. Programs are often advertised on local radio stations as well.
"I think now more than ever there's an abundance of great outreach programs for people to tap into and to go and learn from other growers and from researchers. People really seem to be working together more to really offer programs that benefit the producer," says Darby. "Being a farmer myself, as well as an extension educator, I am amazed at the number of learning opportunities available if you want to take advantage of them."
Darby, a seventh-generation farmer, suggests crossing state lines to tap into other states' resources. Though she lives and works in Vermont, Darby regularly heads east to New Hampshire and south to Massachusetts to explore their extension offerings. VanVranken reports that New Jersey's annual vegetable programs used to see regular attendance from farmers up and down the East Coast, Canada and the Bahamas.
Whether you cross state lines or stay close to home, know that advance registration may be required for workshops, due to space limitations or prerequisites. Occasionally, special workshops are offered with stepped levels of learning, where the information offered in one workshop leads into the next session. The nutrient management course that Darby teaches via UVM Extension assists farmers in developing a plan to manage soil nutrients to help their crops while minimizing environmental impact. Prerequisites for that include having current soil tests and production records.
For tech-savvy farmers, there are additional options. Dharmendra Saraswat, a geospatial engineer for UA, has developed apps and e-books of popular extension publications. He continues to develop means for producers to access just-in-time information from their smartphones and tablets. UA Extension has equipped all of its agriculture agents with iPads to demonstrate best practices or new tools and services.
Extension fits all sizes
One of the biggest misconceptions, according to VanVranken, is that extension programs are only for big commercial ag. Any size farm operation can benefit from the presentations at Rutgers' annual vegetable meetings or twilight meetings. "Though the tools may be different and the marketing channels may be different, pests don't differentiate by farm size, and farm business management issues are the same no matter how big the gross income is," he explains. Although most small farm direct marketers are exempted from the new Food Safety Modernization Act regulations, foodborne pathogens can be found on any size farm, so understanding and implementing safe production practices is critical to the viability of every farm, no matter the size.
"The beauty of the Cooperative Extension System in America is they cater to the small farmer and to the truly large operation," says Ramaswamy. "I was in Mississippi two days ago, visiting farmers growing on 2 acres or less and selling their product to local grocers and restaurants. The same extension service caters to those producers, as well as to the cotton growers with 30,000-acre operations."
While many see cooperative extension as tremendously beneficial for the nation, these resources are dwindling as local, state and federal funding dries up. Ramaswamy reports that years ago every county in the U.S. had an extension office. Today, that local presence is disappearing. He laments that in many states a lot of the extension expertise is being lost.
The author is a freelance writer based in Massachusetts and a monthly contributor to
Extension Resources for Your Farm
Arkansas Corn Advisor App
University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension
(available in 19 states)
2013 New Jersey Commercial Vegetable Production Recommendations
Rutgers Cooperative Extension Plant & Pest Advisory
Rutgers Cooperative Extension
State by state listing of departments of agriculture and farm bureaus
University of Vermont Cooperative Extension
Vermont's New Farmer Project
Find your local cooperative extension office listed in the government pages of the phone book, usually under agriculture, or visit the interactive map at www.csrees.usda.gov/Extension
Photo credits, from top:
Photo by Brian Prechtel, courtesy of USDA-ARS.
Photo by Jack Dykinga, courtesy of USDA-ARS.
Photo by kconnors/morguefile.com.
Photo by Peggy Greb, courtesy of USDA-ARS.
Photo by Keith Weller, courtesy of USDA-ARS.
Photo by Ladyheart/morguefile.com.
Photo by Ladyheart/morguefile.com.