Farmers – familiarize yourself with using your local agricultural extension office and the resources it offers
Every farmer should be familiar with using their local extension office, the resources it offers,
and how best to use them. With the officiation of the Morrill Act of 1862 (signed into law by
President Abraham Lincoln, during some of the bloodiest days of the Civil War), land-grant
universities were formed by state governments in cooperation with federal instruction and
funding, as, “institution[s], that shall possess the means of affording scientific and practical
instruction in the various departments of agricultural husbandry.”
What is a Land-Grant School?
Like other universities, land-grant schools, (i.e. The University of Massachusetts
Amherst, University of Connecticut, Cornell University), have two primary goals which justify
their continued existence: Research and Education . But, unlike other universities and colleges,
land-grant schools have a third primary purpose: Extension . This means, not only do they use
their academic resources to illuminate and document new knowledge; and not only do they
accept official recruits into the world of academia in the form of students; but also they have a
third primary purpose and activity, which is, to propagate the fruits of knowledge outside of the
university, making them public for the benefit of everyone. In essence, the Cooperative
Extension System —the system which unifies the land-grant schools across the country—is, “a
non-formal educational program…designed to help people use research-based knowledge to
improve their lives” (Co-Op Research and Extension Services.).
But as a farmer, this knowledge is aimed at helping you the most. For, as was argued in
the Massachusett State Senate, January 31st, 1850 by Joseph T. Buckingham: “No country can
be populous and prosperous without attention to [agriculture]—and exactly in proportion to the
difficulty of securing ample returns from the simplest and rudest forms of labor seems to grow
the necessity of substituting art , and of enlisting the aid of science to guide the application of
means to attain the desired ends” [emphasis added]. In other words, the institution of land-grant
schools, is the government saying—( theoretically as the voice of the People) — “We want
farmers, and we want them to succeed. Here are the resources; made available to the best of
our ability to everyone on equal terms.” Of course, we always need to be demanding better
Government; we do that best by participation.
How can an Extension Office Help Me?
At the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, there are several programs that can be
utilized by farmers. There is a soil testing lab, a plant diagnostic lab, and several educational
programs—like Pesticide Education Training, Nutrient Best Management Practices—among
other services. Check out this resource for beginning farmers from UMass: Paige Laboratory – Office of Umass Extension
Paige Laboratory Umass Extension
Getting a Soil Test
If you want to try using one of your extension office’s laboratory resources, consider
ordering a soil test, which will involve gathering twelve samples from a depth of six to eight
inches, randomly, from different spots in the soil you want to test and mixing the collection in a
cup. You can follow online instructions like the ones offered here, when you click Get A Soil
Specify Your Analysis
Sending in your samples, you will be able to choose different levels of analysis. For
example, a basic Standard Fertility Test ($20), “Includes pH, acidity, Modified Morgan
extractable nutrients (P, K, Ca, Mg, Fe, Mn, Zn, Cu, B), lead, and aluminum, cation exchange
capacity, and percent base saturation.” The report will also include, based on information the lab
collects from your samples, “recommendations for nutrient and pH adjustment”. This will allow
you to make precise applications of fertilizers, nutrient amendments, and pH adjustments, not
wasting valuable resources, while creating the optimal soil chemistry. You can also spend an
extra $6 to add Soil Organic Matter or Soluble Salts analyses, or an extra $8 for a Soil Nitrate
Conclusion: Agriculture, Both Art & Science
With all the knowledge and laboratory resources which land-grant schools offer through
their extension programs, knowing and using your local extension office can greatly improve
your utilization of a scientific agriculture. We all enjoy doing work by listening to our gut,
especially in agriculture, when having a ‘special touch’ can mean all the difference. But,
organized, systematic approaches in obtaining the greatest value from nature allows us to not
reinvent the wheel. We can be kind and thoughtful farmers—partnered with the Earth and all of
humanity—while at the same time using technology and knowledge, in the generations long
project of being the most prudent farmers we can be.
About Erik Vegeto
Erik is a student of Plant, Soil and Insect Science at Umass Amherst. He has a passion for restorative agriculture and environmental stewardship that drives him forward into new frontiers of thought. Erik loves to read, play guitar, and be creative. One day he hopes to have his own farm and write for a living.
Buckingham, Jos. T. “Concerning the Establishment of an Agricultural School.” Commonwealth
of Massachusetts, 1850.
Act of July 2, 1862 (Morrill Act), Public Law 37-108, which established land-grant colleges, 07/02/1862; Enrolled Acts and Resolutions of Congress, 1789-1996; Record Group 11; General Records of the United States Government; National Archives.