I recently learned that my nutrition-trained colleague had no idea what the Cooperative Extension Service was, or how their work may overlap with our/her work. As such, I’m going to give you a brief overview of the Extension Service and why I think it’s a good idea to maintain and fund them.
In every state (US), there is a land-grant university that receives state and federal funding and has the mission of educating the populace and doing research to support agriculture, science, and engineering. Land-grant universities have been around since the 1800s, and they are now generally a major research institution with a good agricultural program. Part of their mission is to provide services to their state’s residents via the Extension Service’s local office. Extension Agents provide “useful, practical, and research-based information to agricultural producers, small business owners, youth, consumers, and others in rural areas and communities of all sizes.” What does that really mean? It means that there is a local or regional office where you can:
1) Get support in designing a small business
2) Learn about agriculture/gardening and natural resources
3) Become involved in youth programming, like 4-H
4) Learn about food and health
5) Manage a household (“consumer sciences”).
More concrete? You might be able to have your soil tested, your pressure cooker gauge tested, or become a Master Gardener via your local Cooperative Extension office. Your Extension office can help you figure out whether you want to get goats, sheep, cattle, or plant trees (rural). You can sign up for nutrition oriented e-mails (I’m rather fond of Alice’s updates), take classes on managing your money, or taking a parenting for teens class. Some offices even adapt to their clientele by offering college prep classes, growing fish in basements, or studying indoor air quality (urban). Oh, and speaking five languages in their offices!
An extension agent is also likely to be involved in research, whether about local food systems, preschooler nutrition, teaching gardening in schools, or the best practices for preventing a Japanese beetle invasion in your peaches, and the office can provide hand-outs or speakers for groups.
One of the challenges in the realm of science, health, and communities is actually taking that research done by top scientists with 20, or 200, people and turning it into action on the community and state level. Extension agents and extension programs are a fantastic way to develop the links between the lab or the greenhouse to the home and the field. With one foot in each world, agents understand the research and also know how to effectively communicate and partner with their coomunities. Because they live there! Their kids go to the local schools, they shop at the grocery stores, and they go out to teach people how to take a soil or water sample. Working with Cooperative Extension offices offers communities and researchers a reliable and effective way to gain and distribute evidence-based education and best practices. Without the role of Extension “middlemen,” or translators, it’s very easy for research to fall by the wayside, or simply become a few research papers and one or two model programs.
Take advantage of your local Cooperative Extension Service, and let your favorite local and national politicians (House, Senate, or the White House) know that they are a valuable resource for your community.