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What exactly does the Extension office do?

June 17, 2008|By JEFF SEMLER

This October will mark my 20th year with University of Maryland Extension and yet I still get the question, "What do you do?" This came to light again the other weekend when I was at a friend's daughter's graduation party.

In addition to speaking with a number of friends, I encountered an old teammate from my days playing soccer at Williamsport High School. Upon asking the usual questions about my job, when I answered the questions, I got an unusual response. A rather sly quip; so do you teach farmers to plant seeds?

Of course the quip wasn't a serious one, but it did bring to light the disconnection many people have with agriculture. Agriculture is not unlike any other industry where continuing education is a must. In addition, I also do a lot of education of folks that are returning to the land.

So let me start at the beginning, in 1862 in the midst of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act also known as the land grant act. The act gave every state a tract of land in the western territories to sell. With the proceeds of the sale the state was to establish a college for agriculture and mechanics, today known as engineering.

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With its money Maryland established the Maryland Agricultural College in a widening of the road now known as College Park. Over the years the name was changed to the University of Maryland. Every state and the District of Columbia have at least one land grant university. Many land grant universities are easy to identify, West Virginia University, Penn State and the University of Delaware. Others are harder to distinguish like Cornell and Purdue. These too are land grant agricultural universities, but they were named for the men who bought the land grant that funded the school.

The land grant universities have a three-part mission, teaching, research and extension. Extension, of course, is the segment of the university's mission I work in. Extension's job is to bring the university to the people in their community. Thus one of our mottos: "Educating People to Help Themselves."

Professionals within the University of Maryland Extension Office of Washington County conduct educational programs in various areas. One of the easiest programs to recognize is 4-H. Although many people recognize 4-H, most don't know it is connected with the University of Maryland. Many also think you have to live on a farm to participate in 4-H, which is an ancient myth.

Another program area is Family and Consumer Sciences. Educational programs offered range from diet, nutrition and health, to financial planning and many in between.

Agriculture, horticulture and natural resources are the last program areas. Master Gardener training is the newest area in horticulture which has been very popular; with more than 50 people trained and many others awaiting the next training. Also, county residents can get their pest and plant problems diagnosed.

Agriculture and natural resources is of course my area of responsibility. I provide training for farmers in many areas. Annually, I present continuing education training in pesticide application and nutrient management. Other programming varies depending on the need. Recently there have been sessions on estate planning, pasture management, milk quality, sheep and goat nutrition and poultry.

Our unique system of Extension Education is the envy of most of the world. The information provided by Extension is research based and can come from researchers from any land grant university across the U.S. The information is offered at either no cost, or low cost and is not part of a sales pitch.

Many of my colleagues including myself have been in other countries helping them set up Extension programs. Mainly in countries that were once behind the Iron Curtain. Some will say that other countries have systems equal to or better than ours even though farmers pay for it as is the case in England and New Zealand. I beg to differ, but then you would expect that.

To be fair, I am not all that familiar with their system but I always fear advice when it comes with a sales pitch. Many will argue if the information was flawed then the customer would be out of business and that would not serve the salesman. True, but here the salesman can share information from university research coming through extension and I believe the best of both worlds.

Whether our system is the best or not, it has worked since 1914 and I trust well into the future. Other colleges are seeing the benefit, and such corners of the university as Family Studies and Public Health are modeling extension programs after those which were for a time exclusive to the College of Agriculture. And as they say, imitation is the greatest form of flattery.

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