What is a County Extension Service and How Can it Help Me? 

County Extension Service

Gardeners frequently advise friends to check with the county Extension office about problems with plants and landscapes. That could be lawn problems, insects, disease, the weather, and more. But what is an Extension office, and how can it help you? 

What is Extension?

Cooperative Extension offices are an integral part of land grant colleges and universities, such as Purdue, Colorado State, Cornell and Rutgers. The purpose of land grant institutions has always been to teach programs and conduct research to enhance economic stability and to transfer scientific knowledge to industry, business and the public.

Every state and some U.S. territories have land grant colleges or universities and Extension offices. Some states have Extension offices in every county, while others have regional offices.

Services offered by Extensions

Extension offices are the go-to source for more than gardening. Many Extension offices offer programs in financial literacy, 4-H club, agriculture and natural resources, economic development, horticulture, community and school gardens, family health, food safety and nutrition. Extension services may include other community outreach programs, such as youth development. Local Extensions may offer different programs from place to place, depending on their capacity and their state or regional needs.

University professors and staffers in Extension offices have specialties, such as insects, alternative fuels, invasive species, pesticides, forestry, growers and horticulture. These are usually honed for the needs of the state or community. For decades known as Cooperative Extension agents, they now are called Extension educators.

There are experts in individual Extension offices and at the university’s campus, where most of the teaching and research is done. Extension offices issue public alerts on insect infestations, weather issues in the landscape, such as flooding or drought, delayed planting or harvesting, or diseases on plants in your state. Cooperative Extension services also are part of county and state fair activities.

How they help gardeners and homeowners

Extension services offer helpful expert advice and a wide array of services for gardeners and homeowners to help them make wise decisions about how to grow and maintain their gardens and landscape and how to deal with problems that invariably arise. Their experts offer educational programs and provide many downloadable documents, such as how to plant tomatoes, when to fertilize the lawn and best time to prune flowering spring shrubs. Most services are free, but some have a small charge.

Here is a look at some of the key programs offered to gardeners and homeowners by Extensions:

  • Soil testing
  • Insect and disease identification and recommendations for controls
  • Plant identification
  • Best plants for landscapes in your area
  • Lawn care advice
  • Planting guides for your climate
  • How to effectively prune trees and shrubs
  • What to plant when
  • Identifying the grass and weeds in your lawn
  • Identifying tree diseases
  • Recommendations on fertilizers and soil additives based on your soil’s pH level

Master Gardener program

Master Gardener training is probably the best known of Extension programs. Once they complete their education, Master Gardeners are required to volunteer for a certain number of hours on educational or beautification projects in their communities before being certified. Each state, and sometimes each county,  has its own requirements to be a Master Gardener. Their primary goal is to help gardeners. If interested in Master Gardener training, check with your local Extension office.

The best way to know what services are offered bv local Extension offices is to check the website to find the office near you. For instance, some, but not all, may do soil tests or have answer lines where gardeners call in or email questions, which are answered by Master Gardener volunteers.

The history of Extension

In 1862, the Morrill Act (also known as the Land Grant College Act) granted states 30,000 acres for each congressional seat they held. The states could sell the land and provide funding for new colleges or give the money to existing state universities to develop schools of agriculture and mechanical arts.

 The Morrill Act created a network of colleges and universities with Agriculture and Mechanical as part of their name, such as Texas A&M and Florida A&M.

 The Hatch Act was passed in 1887 to fund university research farms and other aspects of rural living.

The Morrill Act of 1890 added more educational opportunities. It established consistent appropriations for land grant colleges. At this time, 17 Historically Black Colleges and Universities and 30 Native American colleges were incorporated into the land grant system.

The Smith-Lever Act, passed by Congress in 1914, established the Cooperative Extension system. Its role was to extend land grant university knowledge to the public. Extension services are a partnership between the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the universities.

Funding for Extension offices usually comes from federal, state and local governments. Over the last several years, funding has dropped off, forcing some offices to reduce hours, staff and programs, while combining counties for services.

Main Photo Credit: University Of Maryland

Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp award-winning garden writer, editor, and speaker. (She speaks at libraries, garden clubs, public gardens, home and garden shows, Master Gardener groups, and horticulture industry events.) Known as a hortiholic, she frequently says her eyes are too big for her yard. She blogs at hoosiergardener.com.