Just what is an extension agent?

Published 10:16 am Wednesday, August 22, 2012

by Chris Drake

I have been the extension agent for Southampton County in the area of agriculture and natural resources since July of last year, and I can’t tell you how many times I have been asked by the general public “What is an extension agent?”

Well, there is an official answer that would be something along the lines of “I am the local presence or extension of the land grant university (Virginia Tech) that has the mission to deliver unbiased, research-based information to the citizens of the Commonwealth of Virginia.”

Well, that doesn’t explain a whole lot now does it?

Virginia Cooperative Extension has more than 200 extension agents in 106 offices and 11 Agricultural Research and Extension centers serving the 95 counties and several independent cities across Virginia. Cooperative Extension is a branch of the land grant university system.

A land-grant college or university is an institution that has been designated by its state legislature or Congress to receive the benefits of the Morrill acts of 1862 and 1890. The original mission of these institutions, as set forth in the first Morrill Act, was to teach agriculture, military tactics, and the mechanical arts as well as classical studies so the working classes could obtain a liberal, practical education.

Our land grant universities are Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University and Virginia State University. Other states have land grant universities such as North Carolina State University, Clemson and Texas A & M.

Some states have traditionally African-American land grant universities such as North Carolina A&T and Alabama A&M. The latter schools are universities that you may hear being referred to as the 1890 schools. Virginia State is our 1890 school, but was actually founded in 1882, and Virginia Tech was founded in 1872.

An excerpt from our website explains that “On May 14, 1914, President Woodrow Wilson signed into law the Smith-Lever Act establishing the Cooperative Extension system, and by doing so, significantly broadened the mission of the nation’s developing land-grant institutions. It marked the beginning of a partnership among federal government, state government and higher education in working cooperatively towards the solution of social and economic problems. It elevated the posture of higher educational institutions as social actors accountable to the social systems they helped to produce. It changed the view of university as a training ground for the elite by expanding its mission to the public domain.”

Now, I will try to answer what it is I and 219 other people do on a daily basis. I am responsible for improving the quality of life for our farmers, landowners and citizens by delivering educational programming as it pertains to agriculture and natural resources. This is done by using myriad delivery methods.

My extension efforts range from newsletters and field days to research trials and on-farm demonstrations. A good extension agent accesses the needs of his or her potential clients and delivers quality research-based information in a timely and effective manner.

Virginia Cooperative Extension has four areas of programming — Agriculture and Natural Resources, 4-H Youth Development, Family and Consumer Sciences, and Community Viability.

Every agent has a unique county/city where they work and their programming is based upon local needs and ideas. Some of the many things I do for the farmers are cotton variety trials, plastic pesticide container recycling, bimonthly production newsletters, corn earworm moth monitoring, and on-farm diagnostics pertaining to diseases, insects and soil fertility.

From now on when someone asks you “Just what is an extension agent,” you can hopefully answer that question with a smile.

CHRIS DRAKE  is the agriculture and natural resource agent for Southampton County and can be reached at chrisd17@vt.edu.