What is an Extension Agent?

by Stephanie Suesan Smith on November 23, 2010

I end a lot of my articles with instructions to consult your local Extension agent for specific information.  Living in rural Texas most of my life, it never occurred to me to explain just what an Extension agent was and how to find the office nearest you.  Not, that is, until someone asked me what such a creature was.

Extension began with the Morrill Act of 1862, which established land grant universities.  These universities had a mandate to do research into the best way of doing things (best practices) and teach people in the community to do them that way.  These best practices had to do with agriculture, horticulture, home economics and food production, and the training of youth in these fields through 4-H programs.

In 1914, with the Smith-Lever Act, the United States Department of Agriculture was made the agency in charge of funding such efforts.  Now there are more than 100 land grant universities.  What have they done?

During WWI, they helped increase wheat and other food production to meet the needs of the military and the people at home.  They taught people how to make more efficient use of the land so that they could raise more food with fewer people.  They also taught women how to preserve food when it was produced and use it to produce safe and nutritious meals for their families.  Home gardens and poultry floks were emphasized.  These skills were reinforced during the Great Depression, when they kept many families from starving.

During WWII, the Victory Garden movement helped feed those not fighting nutritious food.  In fact, it produced 40% of all vegetables consumed in the country by war’s end.  Extension helped people obtain seed and showed them how to grow enough to keep their family healthy.

As the number of farmers and ranchers declined in the United States, even while the population increased, research into how to increase yeilds and avoid diseases became more important.  As the nation became less aware of proper nutrition, the training in how to plan, buy, and prepare a nutritious meal became more important.  Many counties have classes in cooking for diabetics, since that often requires quite a change in diet, or heart attack survivors.

Now, Extension has made some errors along the way.  Johnson grass comes to mind.  Individual agents may not be the brightest bulb in the box, but that is true of any group.  Overall, Extension agents are the people who help ranchers and farmers grow our food, help us grow our table gardens, and help us preserve and prepare the food in a safe manner.

How do you find all this information?  The National Extension website is called eXtension.  It has a collection of articles on various topics that are research based.  In fact, everything taught in Extension is research based.

In addition to articles, eXtension has a box you can click to find a U.S. Institution, and you can enter your zip code to find the nearest office.  This is the office that can help you by phone or with classes if you cannot find the answer online.

So now that you know what an Extension agent is, look your’s up.  You may find a full schedule of talks, classes, and events to answer all your questions.

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Available in print or ebook from or other retailers, this book walks you from choosing the site of your garden all the way through what to do after the harvest. Buy a copy for yourself or a friend today! 

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