Knowledge Is Power

May 2020

County extension gives you access to farming research and more

Many local farmers already know extension agents as the people they call when there is a problem with their crop. What they may not know is those agents are considered university faculty members. Rather than spending all of their time in a classroom or a lab, though, these experts specialize in sharing their knowledge with the community.

“We bring the research and information from universities to the public so they can actually use it,” says Katherine Allen, director of the Suwannee County Extension and a family and consumer sciences agent. “Research can’t be very powerful if they just do it and it sits on a shelf.”

County extension programs in the United States go back to the Morrill Land Grant College Act, which President Abraham Lincoln signed into law in 1862. The act funded agriculture and mechanical arts colleges across the country, tasking them with teaching, conducting research and extending their findings to the public.

Florida has an extension office in all 67 counties. Each one is partnered with the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences and Florida A&M University, but also has access to the network of land-grant universities across the nation.

Originally, county extension offices worked primarily with local farmers, helping them get the most out of their crops and sharing the latest best practices. Over time, that mission has extended to promoting smarter financial management and general wellness and educating young people in the community.

“As times have changed, so has extension,” Allen says. “What originally was taking care of farms, though we still do that, has morphed into life skills, civic engagement, public speaking and more. It’s kind of the front door to the university. We can put people in touch with a researcher working on just about anything they’re interested in.”

What Do You Want to Know?

While many of Suwannee County Extension’s programs focus on supporting the agricultural community, it has plenty to offer for farmers and nonfarmers alike:

Master Gardener program – Master Gardeners complete a 15-week class, after which they commit dozens of hours each year to helping others with their horticultural projects. They volunteer at the Live Oak Seed Library and local school gardens and can help you get your seeds started, manage pest problems and answer any gardening questions you might have.

4-H clubs – Suwannee County has 15 different 4-H clubs led by trained volunteers. While many 4-H students learn to raise livestock to show at the county fair, these clubs also help mold young people into productive members of society by teaching them life skills, civic engagement, public speaking and more.

Soil analysis – Soil testing can help farmers learn more about the pH balance, macronutrients, micronutrients and organic matter in their land. Having a better understanding of these factors helps farmers make informed decisions about which management techniques will be most effective for improving the health of their soil.

Homebuyer program – Buying a home is one of the biggest financial

decisions you can make, so don’t leave any questions unanswered. The county extension office can walk you through the process so you know what to expect, help you get down payment assistance from the USDA and introduce you to experts in the community.

Wellness programs – Suwannee County Extension offers programs for diabetes prevention and weight management that promote healthy habits and have even helped some county residents work their way off certain medications. The office is also partnering with local faith communities to continue providing a support system for participants after the programs end.

The More You Know

Currently, Suwannee County Extension is working to make more programs and classes available to the community online. Virtual summer camps are already being organized for 4-H club students, and Allen plans to offer food safety training courses for restaurant staff digitally.

She also hopes the county extension can be a valuable resource for those who may be out of work and looking for ways to save money around the house.

“Maybe you usually rely on takeout or food you can easily assemble, and now you’re wondering, ‘How can I make meals and save money?’” she says. “Some people might be looking at energy efficiency tips to keep the bills down while they’re on furlough and at home a lot more.”

In a world where so much unverified information is available at our fingertips, Allen sees value in having a source of reliable research like the Suwannee County Extension that her local community can rely on. So if you have a question, don’t hesitate to ask.

“So many people don’t know about the county extension at all or only know about it from one perspective, when there are so many programs we have to offer,” she says. “Knowing that you’re getting research-based and unbiased information is so important. It gives consumers power they wouldn’t normally have to make good decisions.”