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Schmidt: What does an Extension Agent do?

By Staff | Jan 9, 2015

Often when meeting new people as I am out and about at some point during the conversation I am asked what I do for a living and I am often met with puzzled looks when I tell them I am an Extension Agent. Some folks weren’t even aware that Extension existed or what its purpose is. I find this surprising, since for as long as I can remember, growing up, I’ve known that if you had a question or problem and didn’t know where to go the local Extension office was there as a resource.

It is difficult to explain the nature of my job in just a sentence or two because of the complexity of the work that we do- especially if one is not already familiar with the Extension Service and its purpose. So let’s take a moment to step back in history, 100 years to be exact. The Extension Service or Cooperative Extension Service as it is called in some states was born in 1914 with the signing of the Smith-Lever Act. From the USDA website, you will learn that all universities engage in two primary missions: research and teaching, but the signing of the Smith-Lever Act gives the nation’s land-grant colleges and universities a third mission extension. “Extension” means “reaching out,” so in addition to teaching and research, land-grant institutions are able to bring non-biased research based information to the local level to the people who might not otherwise have access to such information. A century ago when Congress created the extension system its purpose was to address exclusively rural and agricultural issues. However, over the last 100 years, Extension delivery methods and audiences have changed. Today Extension is not just for farmers it is for everyone from gardeners to homeowners, rural or urban. The mission of the NDSU Extension Service is to create learning partnerships that helps adults and youth enhance their lives and communities.

An Extension Agent is a mix between a teacher and a county agricultural agent. Like a teacher, the Extension Agent educates people on a variety of topics and like a County Agricultural Agent, they work with farmers to help them answer their questions about crops, livestock, and marketing. County Extension Agents are backed up by specialists and a network of other resources to help them get the answers people need. For example if I get a call on a topic, that I’m not particularly well-versed in I know who to call whether it’s a specialist on campus at NDSU or at one of the Research Extension Centers or sometimes an agent from another county. Our job covers such a broad range of subject matter it is impossible to be an expert on all of it. Because of this, another big part of our job is continuing education which often occurs at centralized locations across the state.

Much of our work is still completed on an individual basis when residents have questions about farming, ranching, gardening, or any number of topics related to daily living. In addition we share information through programs, holding discussion groups, sending out emails and flyers, doing radio reports and newspaper columns. Sometimes we hear people say “we don’t need Extension anymore because I can get everything I need on the Internet”. Truth is you can get a lot of information from the Internet. Some of it is valid and some of it’s not. Many questions we get and many of the situations we get asked to fix from a homeowner or landowner is something they got off the Internet that didn’t work. It may have worked well in another state or country but not in North Dakota.

This job also calls for a lot of program planning both at the local and state level. All staff within the NDSU Extension Service are required to be involved in program planning on at least one subject-matter team. NDSU Extension currently has ten program teams consisting of county, area, and state staff. The program teams are:

1. Community Vitality

2. Livestock Management

3. Farm Business Management

4. Crop Management

5. Natural Resource Management

6. Family Economics

7. 4-H Youth Development

8. Human Development and Family Science

9. Nutrition, Food Safety and Health

10. Horticulture and Forestry

Each team has two co-chairs that guide the team’s planning process annually (one agent and one specialist). Our main goals are to prioritize emerging needs or issues affecting our counties, districts, and the state. Then we work to develop, implement and evaluate programs and activities relative to the emerging needs and issues we’ve previously identified. I am currently a member of the Livestock Animal Health and the Horticulture and Forestry program teams. In November my Livestock team met in Fargo to put together a program on net wrap and its implications on animal health which will be utilized by other agents across the state.

On the local level, Extension Agents regularly put on programs to share information relative to both farmers and homeowners. Program planning happens year around and we often begin planning events 3-4 months in advance. Right now I am in the process of planning several for this winter and early spring which may be of interest to you or someone you know.

If you would like to be notified of these, you can call the Pierce County Extension office and request to be added to our email and mailing lists.

Collaboration is another big part of an Extension Agent’s job. We collaborate with many other organizations and agencies to bring education to the people. Because of this collaborative part of our job we often sit on a lot of boards in the community. In multi-agent counties, in addition to the Agriculture and Natural Resources agent such as myself and administrative assistant (Claire), there may be a Family Consumer Science agent and a Family Nutrition Program Assistant. In multi-agent counties these individuals often work together to deliver joint programming. In single agent counties such as ours, the Extension agent works to provide programming in their program specialty areas and collaborates with other Extension agents in the neighboring area to aid in programming requiring other subject matter areas as their schedules allow.

Last but not least, let’s not forget youth development. Nearly all Extension agents, regardless of their area of specialization, work with the 4H program in some capacity. For many this means organizing and advising the local county 4-H program and clubs in project completion and record keeping, county and state fair requirements, leader and volunteer training, and delivering 4-H educational programming.

So what does this all mean to the residents in Pierce County or other counties across the state? What can your local NDSU Extension office do for you? We are available to process soil samples, hay and feed samples through the North Dakota State University laboratory. Farmers and homeowners can also request me to come out to their property and look at problems with hayfields, crops, livestock, insect problems, gardens, trees, ornamental shrubs, lawns and the list goes on

As you can see, an Extension agent is responsible for managing many resources offered by a county Extension office which makes answering the question, “So, what does an Extension Agent do?” difficult in just a sentence or two.

Well, if you were not already familiar with the services offered through your local NDSU Extension office I hope this article has provided you with a better understanding of the resources available to you and for those already familiar with NDSU Extension, I hope you were able to discover additional services and resources available to you that you may not have been aware of before.

For more information on what Extension Agents do, check out the following video “A Typical Day for an Extension Agent” which was put together by Kansas State University Extension or call your local Extension office.

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