For answers to most agricultural questions, many turn to their local agricultural extension service. Every state has one or more locations. Each extension office offers assistance to local individuals, communities, and organizations looking for answers to questions about pest management, health and nutrition, meeting federal and state food and safety standards, expanding their value-added products, and much more. Extensions exist to answer the most basic agricultural questions to the most complex, and they have a long history of helping farmers find ways to develop, expand, and sustain their farms.
Extension services in the United States began in the early 1900s as a way to support farmers and their families with science-based knowledge. Extension services have always maintained close ties to local universities with strong agricultural programs. Scientists and university professors at these universities offer their expertise on subjects ranging from agriculture, life sciences, economics, engineering, food safety, pest management, veterinary medicine, and other related disciplines.
If you’re unfamiliar with your local extension agency, this valuable resource can be found most often in courthouses, post offices, and other government buildings. The internet is a good source for tracking down the closest extension office to you. Go to www.Extension.org, and it will identify the location and contact information for each extension office in the U.S. Once you’re on the homepage, click on any topic in the “Resource Area” at the bottom of the page, then plug in your zip code. That’ll lead you to your nearest extension service.
This site is also a comprehensive resource for anyone from agricultural professionals to gardening hobbyists, and includes agricultural fact sheets, blogs, webinars, links to conferences, and research-based articles.
All extensions can be found in the phone book business pages under “Extension.” Whether a question is simple or complex, an extension specialist will find the answer.
Mary Peabody, a University of Vermont extension professor, says, “We live in an age where there is a lot of information available, and while that can be a great thing, it can also be a little overwhelming. It is also hard sometimes to know what information you should trust.” Peabody says that extension information is current, unbiased, and trustworthy. If there’s something you want to know about that isn’t being done at your local extension office, they know where it is being done and will connect you with ways to access that information.
Theresa Gaffney, an organic lowbush blueberry farmer in Maine, has worked with a number of extension specialists from the University of Maine to develop her farm, Highland Organics & Highland Blueberry Farm, including value-added products and her business plan. She first called her Maine extension office in 2004 to find out if her hunch about blueberry leaves having nutritive value had merit. University of Maine Professor of Food Science Alfred Bushway encouraged her to follow through by testing the leaves for antioxidants. She took his advice and discovered that indeed blueberry leaves had more than double the antioxidants as the fruit.
Gaffney shared her results with Bushway, and the University of Maine conducted lab tests that confirmed her results. Gaffney says, “I knew that this was a really big discovery, but what could I do with it?” She spent time trying to answer that question and then returned to Bushway and his team to explore her options. Her first step was to talk with a specialist at the Extension’s Food Product Process Review Laboratory, which supports farmers developing new value-added products. Bushway’s team, including Extension Food Science Specialist Beth Calder, helped Gaffney develop efficient drying systems, hone her research goals, meet consumer safety standards, and more. Since those early days of exploration with her extension office, Gaffney, with the help of Calder, now sells over 20,000 pounds of frozen organic blueberries a year and has developed a growing line of value-added products, including Organic Blueberry Barque (blueberry chips), Organic Blueberry Sprinkles, a variety of Organic Blueberry Teas, and the latest product, Organic Blueberry Smoothie Powder.
Calder says, “Gaffney’s creative and open-minded approach to the extension and to farming is an example to all farmers who are looking for ways to diversify their products and expand their markets.”
Gaffney has taken full advantage of her extension offices to explore and expand her blueberry farm, which is now a thriving agricultural business and a resource for other blueberry farmers in Maine.
While extensions are available to individual farmers, they also support larger operations like Wegmans family-owned regional supermarkets (Wegmans Food Markets, Inc.), which contracts with over 800 growers. In 2006, owner Danny Wegman started Wegmans Organic Research Farm where he established a field laboratory for organic produce. His goal was to determine which plant varieties produce the tastiest organic products and are economically sustainable for Northeastern farmers. The research farm takes on the risk of trial crops, and then shares what they learn from their experiments with their growing partners.
One invaluable resource for Wegmans research farm has been the Cornell Cooperative Extension affiliated with Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Over the years, the Cornell Extension has partnered with Wegmans on many projects. In the summer of 2016, they helped the research farm with more than 10 agricultural trials, including one developing an organic pumpkin best suited for use in purees. Another trial tested organic wheat varieties for nutritional gains. Wegmans is also working with scientists at Cornell University on developing a variety of apples called ‘GoldRush,’ which can be grown organically in high-density orchards.
The cost of extension services can vary. There are programs that have costs associated with them, but there are also thousands of resources that are absolutely free. The only way to determine what an extension offers its community is to find them and make a phone call. Even if a farmer has tapped their extension for information in the past, Peabody says, “If you haven’t been in touch for a while, you should check out what is going on in an extension in your region. You’ll probably be surprised!”
Looking for your niche? Get in touch with your local extension service, and find a few helpful tips at www.Grit.com/find-your-niche.
Dale and Darcy Cahill are authors, and live in northern Vermont. They have written two books about tobacco sheds in the Connecticut River Valley.