Extension Services Basics
Annie Klodd, Nellie Robertson
Fruit growers wear many hats. A day of work may include physical labor, business and administrative tasks, planning and marketing, just to start the list. At the same time, not too far from your farm, there are others whose day also revolves around growing food, but they approach the issue from a different perspective. Those at the Extension Offices collect data and draw conclusions, they inform and educate about one important aspect of your work: the specifics of growing the produce you sell. If you reach out and take advantage of the system, their work can complement yours.
The idea to collect data and share information about how to grow crops in a specific geographic location is not new — think China, a couple thousand years ago, or Ireland, when the 1845-51 potato famine made it necessary to learn about and grow alternative crops. In the US, the Smith-Lever Act of 1914 formally established the publicly funded Cooperative Extension Service. This research and education network links the resources of federal (USDA), state (land-grant universities), and local (county) governments. It now includes almost 3,000 offices in all 50 states, so no matter where you grow apples, grapes, or blueberries, there should be someone nearby to help with locally relevant information.
I wanted to find out more about the practical implementation of this vast system, and how the local Extension Office and OFGA supplement each other in helping fruit growers. We are truly fortunate to have Annie Klodd, Extension Educator (University of Minnesota Extension) among our members, so I reached out to her, as well as my local (Northeast Missouri) extension office to learn more.
Within the Extension Service system, who should I contact with fruit-growing questions?
If it is your first time using the Extension Service, your county office is a great place to start. Office staff can answer your questions, or direct you to a program or Extension Educator (formerly Extension Agent) who is best equipped to answer your specific question.
The ladies at my local office said that I should contact the Regional Field Specialist in Horticulture in the county just west of us. It turned out that she does not do a lot of fruit work herself; she gets questions about vegetable and home gardens, lawns, flowers, trees. However, she was able to connect me with the State Fruit Extension Specialist, so in less than 48 hours I was in touch with the right person, who was very helpful and knowledgable. She is a Professor of Horticulture and her office is at the University of Missouri campus. She confirmed that regional specialists can help with most questions, and if they cannot, they will forward the question to her, or if appropriate, suggest the grower to connect the Plant Diagnostic Clinic for analysis.
In Minnesota, home gardeners with fruit questions are advised to contact their local county Crops/Horticulture Extension Educator or the Master Gardener “Ask the Expert” hotline. Commercial growers may contact me directly with fruit questions (Annie Klodd, email@example.com and 515-229-2073), and Natalie Hoidal with vegetable questions.
It is our job to help, and we provide organic solutions for organic growers. Many of us have farming backgrounds or farm currently, and have advanced degrees studying fruit production. This doesn’t mean that we have every answer, but if we don’t know the answer, it is our job to find it.
Do all offices have fruit specialists?
The Extension provides programs and services based on the need (and allocated funds) within the state, region, and county where it is located. 114 county offices serve Missouri, with 19 Horticulture Specialists who cover different regions. They are available to answer both fruit and vegetable questions, and if they cannot answer, they contact the State Fruit Specialist. Some states have larger specialist teams, with separate Educators focusing on fruits and nuts, only fruits, or even different experts for tree fruits and other fruits. Contact your local office to figure out what the situation is in your area.
Is it best to start with an email? Should I include photos?
Email is a great way to start in Missouri. If the Extension Office staff cannot answer the question, they can and will easily forward it to the Horticulture Specialists. Photos make it easier to identify the problem, starting with the whole plant, surrounding vegetation, and clear close-ups of the problem. For the most accurate diagnosis of a disease issue, a plant sample should be sent to the Diagnostic Clinic (more on these below).
An email or a phone call is a great place to start. Some Extension Educators like myself also accept text messages during business hours. If the problem is a visual one, such as “Why are my blueberry leaves turning brown?” then photos are important for solving the problem. For best results, send a clear close-up photo and a photo showing the whole plant or affected area.
What are some common questions you receive?
Pests and diseases are the most frequent topics the Missouri Extension Service receives questions about. Sometimes they also answer questions about pruning, fertilizing and mulching.
Often when growers call, they have noticed a problem in their orchard and are looking to diagnose the problem and then receive management recommendations. Other times, the grower already knows what is causing the problem, and would like suggestions to improve their current management strategy.
Nutrient management is a puzzling topic for many. There is a lot of science around soil nutrition and how plants take up nutrients. Therefore, deciding what nutrients to apply, and when and how to apply them, is not as simple as subscribing to the same spray schedule every year. That’s where Extension can help. At UMN and other state universities, we have easy access to soil specialists who spend their careers studying this complex topic, and can consult them quickly when tricky nutrient management questions come up.
If samples are needed for diagnosis of a problem, who do I send those to? Is there an associated cost?
Plant Diagnostic Centers or Plant Disease Clinics at the universities help growers with diagnosis of plant diseases and identification of plants and insects; other labs test plant nutrient levels or soil characteristics. If you start with the Extension staff, they can direct you to the best place to find a solution for your particular problem.
The University of Missouri clinic (PDC) is currently closed until a new diagnostician is hired, but Missouri growers can send samples to the Kansas State University lab or to the University of Illinois — in this case, the size of the Extension Service system is very helpful.
Each diagnostic clinic has information on their website about submission services and fees, with a general/routine diagnosis starting at $10-18 in Missouri, Kansas, and Illinois. Since the services offered can vary between clinics, and a routine service may cover different tests, it is helpful to talk to an Extension Educator or the clinic staff prior to submitting samples.
In Minnesota, we have the UMN Plant Disease Clinic and UMN Soil Testing Laboratory for this.
To submit a sample to the Plant Disease Clinic, the grower collects a plant sample with the symptoms and mails it in with a submission form and payment. A routine test at the Plant Disease Clinic costs $45. More details are available at pdc.umn.edu.
If we do not know whether the symptoms are due to a disease or an environmental problem like nutrient deficiency, we may recommend the grower also submit a foliar or soil sample to the Soil Testing Lab. Contact your state fruit Extension Educator for more information on submitting these samples, to ensure you order the appropriate test.
What is included with the results? Do they provide recommendations?
In Missouri, the clinic (when open) provides research-based management recommendations in a written report. When submitting samples to any lab, remember that diagnosis and recommendations are solely based on the information you provide, so it is important to fill out their submission form with complete and specific information, and to send a representative sample. If you are not sure what could be useful to include, Extension staff can help.
The plant diagnostic clinics don’t typically give recommendations based on the results. That’s where Extension comes in. Email or call us with the results, and we will work with a plant pathologist to offer recommendations.
Regarding soil and foliar tests: Some labs offer recommendations, but some do not. Extension educators can provide recommendations based on the results if they are not provided on the report. Just forward us the report, and we will take a look.
Can Extension staff help both commercial growers and home gardeners? How long does it take to get assistance with my problem?
All Extension Offices answer questions from both commercial growers and home gardeners. My local Regional Horticulture Specialist said in reality, she mainly answers questions about home gardens with a grapevine in the backyard or four blackberry bushes behind the shed. This might change as more commercial growers add fruit to their operations. She is usually able to diagnose things herself, but she can quickly connect with the State Fruit Specialist for tricky questions.
The work of the Extension staff includes programs when they are out in the field, so they might not able respond right away, but their goal is to respond within a day. It only took me a visit and an email to connect with the right person, and I had all my questions answered within two days.
In Minnesota, we prefer that home gardeners submit questions to the “Ask the Expert” hotline managed by the Master Gardener program. If the Master Gardener volunteer is unable to answer the question, they will contact an Extension Educator for help. County-based horticulture Extension Educators also assist with questions from home gardeners. Like I said before, commercial growers may contact me directly with fruit questions.
Extension educators and specialists strive to return questions from growers in a timely manner. On our team at UMN, we aim to return questions within 24 hours or less. If the question is time-sensitive, we prioritize it and answer as soon as possible. I accept text messages for time sensitive questions because I can answer them while in the field.
In summary, my experience shows that Extension Offices and specialist staff are there to help you with any issue related to growing fruit, especially if you need information relevant to your specific location. In Missouri, they have seen an increase in small fruit plantings in home gardens as well as in commercial vegetable gardens, where small fruits like elderberries are added to diversify operations. This interest from the growers will likely increase the related information and services available at the Extension Offices, so keep their resources in mind, and connect with their staff so they would know what to focus their programs on.
Meanwhile, I encourage you to continue using the OFGA Listserv, our website and other channels for communication as well, and don’t hesitate to reach out to other members, especially if you have questions about other aspects of growing and selling fruit (business, marketing, facilities and equipment, etc.). After all, we all wear many hats and have experience in various areas.
A final note from Annie:
Share with us what’s going on at your farm! The articles we write, presentations we give, and answers we provide take into account what is happening on farms at that time. To provide the best assistance possible, we want to know what farmers are experiencing and struggling with. For instance, in June we received multiple reports of yellowing fruit on aronia. Knowing this allowed us to work with researchers at the University of Connecticut to quickly investigate the cause of the problem and assist those aronia growers. We knew about this problem because growers brought it to our attention.
In a Nutshell
Annie says she often gets questions about the following topics.
The best time to spray for diseases and insect pests
What to spray for specific insects and diseases
Non-chemical pest management practices
Nutrient management — when to fertilize, and whether to apply soil or foliar fertilizers
Crop load management
Planting new orchards
Causes of plant/tree death and when to replace plants
If you have questions or concerns about any of these topics, don’t hesitate to reach out! Extension Educators are here to help.
For more information about the Extension Services in general, check out the USDA website here:
To find your local Extension Office or State Fruit Specialist, check out this website:
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