During one of the workshops I was attending at the Field to Fork Festival the topic of the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service was brought up. The gentleman leading the workshop was a local CES agent, and one of the participants began asking him questions about the Master Gardeners classes that are offered by some of the CES offices. As I listened to the conversation I realized that there are many people who are unaware of the learning opportunities offered by the organization.
The Cooperative Extension System is part of the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. The system has existed, in one form or another, for the better part of a century. As it was explained to me, the purpose of the CES was to provide a way for the agriculture research being performed at the land grant universities to be shared at the local level. Over the years it has been expanded to include programs that focus on a variety of topics including agriculture, home and family, economic development, and even the arts. Each state has one or more Universities in the CES system, and local offices at either the county or regional level.
My first memories of hearing about the 'extension office', as they are locally referred to, are from my childhood. I can remember my parents calling the extension office to ask various gardening questions, such as when is the best time to plant green beans or how to treat a specific pest or plant disease. I remember being skeptical that an office existed that one could simply call up and ask routine garden questions and receive a reply without having to pay a fee. It has only been during the past couple of years that I have began really utilizing the local extension office myself, and understanding how they work and the services they provide.
So far we have primarily used the extension office as a source of learning. We have taken several gardening classes through the CES, including classes on growing strawberries, growing blackberries and raspberries, growing rhubarb and asparagus, using cover crops, composting, and raising chickens. We are currently enrolled in the eleven workshop Gardening 101 class, which meets every other week. Andrea is also enrolled in the KYFarmStart course, which is a ten session class focusing on farm management topics for beginning farmers. She will also likely enroll in the Master Gardeners class next year. In addition to agriculture and horticulture workshops our local offices also offer several classes under the Family and Consumer Sciences department on topics such as quilting, food preservation, and even cake decorating.
I have learned, however, that the learning opportunities offered varies a great deal from one county to the next. While this can partially be explained by differences in the agents themselves, I believe it is caused primarily by the interest, or lack of interest, shown by the people in the community. For this reason, I believe it is important to reach out to your local CES and let them know the types of programs that you would like to see offered. If the local office doesn't have the types of classes and programs that you want, don't be afraid to see what the offices in neighboring counties have to offer. In fact, the office where we take most of our classes is in an adjacent county, and the KYFarmStart course Andrea is beginning soon is being offered through an office two counties over.
Of course the CES offers many services beyond classroom based education. They do answer the types of questions I remember my parents calling with as a child. They do so much more, than that, however. The local ag agent provides help with identifying pests and diseases, even if that requires a visit to the farm. The office provides very reasonably priced soil tests for both farmers and home owners, that is returned with customized recommendation based on the crops the individual wishes to raise. Our local office takes orders for various plants, to take advantage of volume pricing. The office also serves as home base for several clubs, including the local Cattleman's Association, beekeeping club, quilting clubs, etc.
If you're not already familiar with your local Cooperative Extension System office, and the programs and classes offered there, I urge you to check it out. Many offices, at least in the state of Kentucky, have websites and Facebook pages that list their programs and classes. Alternatively, you can always give them a call or stop by in person to see what they might be offering. The CES was created to educate people like you and I, so we might as well take advantage of it.