If you have a homestead — or are thinking of getting one — you owe it to yourself to become familiar with a rich source of information, advice, and useful publications about everything from livestock to bicycles to rockets to yeast breads to methods of pruning that favorite fruit tree.
This fountain of knowledge is known as the Extension Service and its representatives are called Extension Agents. (Although, to be sure, they're frequently more colloquially referred to as county extension agents or agricultural extension agents.)
The ES has branches in every county of the United States, if you can find them. And therein lies the rub, thanks to the independence which the organization grants to each of its outlets. Mine may have decided to be known as the Middlesex County Extension Service, yours might be the Crawdad County Cooperative Service, and the one down the road could be called the Pigseye County Agricultural Center. As should be expected, this game of musical monikers sometimes makes finding the bureaus in the telephone book just a little bit sticky.
Tracking down your nearest ES office can be well worth the effort, however, even when you have to resort to a bit of detective work to do it. If all other clues fail you, remember that Extension Service offices are usually, located in the post office building down at the county seat. And if that lead doesn't help, address a letter to the Extension Service Director of the local College of Agriculture at your state university and ask him to help you!
The Extension Service, is made up of three main branches:
1. 4-H and Youth,
2. Home Economics
3. Agriculture (which, in many cases, now includes Community Development)
At one time or another, you may well want information that falls within the province of any one, two, or three of the trio. For the purposes of this short discussion, though, I'd like to concentrate on the help that a typical back-to-the-lander is most likely to receive from the agriculture section of the ES.
An Agricultural Extension Agent, for example, is expected to be familiar with land and farming conditions in his or her county and can therefore be a great help to anyone who wants to establish a small family farm, produce operation, or homestead there. So check with The Man (or Woman) before rushing off to buy that "ideal place" that the realtor has told you "won't last at the price".
How is that piece of property zoned? What type of soil is on the place? Is water readily available there? What crops can be grown on the acreage? What is that land really worth? (Remember, if you're moving from a more urbanized or developed area, that what may seem to you to be a reasonable asking price for the property you have in mind may actually be far out of line with the going rates for land in the region you're moving to. And that can come back to haunt you, later, when you want to sell the place.)
It's far better to ask for guidance from your local Extension Service before you sign on the dotted line, than to seek answers to such questions after.
Which, of course, in no way means that you should ignore the ES once you've happily settled into your new home in the country. For it's then that you should tap the service for farming plans, building blueprints, livestock raising tips, and gardening ideas. The agency even offers classes in sewing, cooking, electrical repairs, and other valuable self sufficiency skills.
Bear in mind, however, that people will be people (with special individual skills and interests) and Extension Agents are no different from anyone else. Each has certain ideas, knowledge, and prejudices all his or her own and it is possible that you'll find the nearest EA to be a taciturn ole cuss who still can't figure out why DDT was banned!
If that happens, don't wear yourself out arguing with him. Just take your business to the more congenial agent who probably operates out of the next county, or write to the state university specialist in the field you want to know about. A question on milk cows, for instance, can be addressed to the Extension Dairy Specialist in the College of Agriculture at your state university
Although some of the bulletins offered by the Extension Service will cost you a small fee (to cover their printing), most of the advice, information, and printed matter available from the local office is free. Or — more properly — your county, state and federal taxes have already paid for the ES outlet in your area, its staff, and everything else it needs to be in business. So you're foolish if you don't use the service with impunity.
The next time you have a question about your homestead or some facet of its operation, then, call your friendly local Extension Service office. The folks there should be more than happy to serve you and they may have exactly the answer you need.