16 Things You Can Get Free or Cheap at Your County Extension Office
Any gardener worth their green thumb has the local county extension office on speed dial. But if you’ve never heard of this community resource, you might be puzzled. What are these offices sprinkled across the country, and what on earth are they an extension of?
County extension offices have a long history of supporting local farmers and gardeners through various programs in the U.S. and Canada. Today, extension offices offer many services to communities that extend beyond weeds and pest control into supporting small businesses and enriching the local area with research-based information and free or cheap classes.
What Is an Extension Office?
In 1914, the Smith-Lever Act formalized a partnership between the U.S. Department of Agriculture and hundreds of publicly funded, land-grant universities nationwide. At the time, 50% of the population lived in rural areas, and 30% were engaged in farming, so there was a need for agricultural services to promote better crop management.
Cooperative extensions — eventually shortened to “extension” — took the knowledge of existing agriculture clubs and societies and created classes and community lectures. As the home vegetable garden returned in the early 1970s, extension offices established the renowned Master Gardener Program in the U.S. and some Canadian territories that provides hands-on horticultural training.
Another popular extension program you’re probably familiar with is the youth organization 4-H, which provides health, science, agricultural and civic engagement opportunities to over 6 million kids across America.
16 Things You Can Learn at Your Local Extension Office
While extension services vary from state to state, most county extension offices have branched out from gardening and farming to offerings that suit the needs of the communities they serve. Here’s a sample of free or low-cost classes and services you can sign up for at your local extension.
(ICYMI: Your library is a great free resource too. You can check out tools, park passes, games and more.)
1. Soil Testing
If your victory garden failed last year or your lawn isn’t looking great, maybe the problem isn’t you. It could be your soil was compacted or the pH levels were out of whack. Find out your soil composition at your county extension office, where you can get a soil sample kit and run soil tests to get expert analysis.
Soil testing is often free, though you may pay a small fee depending on the office and time of year.
Save on groceries and get your backyard garden off to a green start with our guide to gardening on a budget.
2. Forestry and Stewardship
If exploring wilderness where the map ends is your thing, the extension office might have courses on trail maintenance, forestry, fire suppression, climate change and more.
Utah State University offers a program called Trail Master Steward to help recruit, train and educate volunteers on the principles of responsible trail management.
The University of Idaho teaches a Master Forest Steward certification to train volunteers to work with landowners and educate the public. The 70-hour training costs $40. The Georgia Master Naturalist course offers a hands-on environmental education, too.
3. Pest Control
Before you call an exterminator, consider whether your pest problem is something a visit to the extension office can help solve. They specialize in educating the public about how to handle and monitor not only invasive plants but invaders of the winged variety.
For instance, last fall the Orange County extension office in Florida handed out two free mosquito traps per household to deal with the influx after Hurricane Ian.
It pays to get to know your local extension office. Some offices hold classes to build rain barrels, brew beer or make cheese. You might even be able to borrow cake pans or leather working tools.
4. Lawn Care and Landscaping Design
Visit your extension office to get sustainable landscape ideas that’ll freshen up your landscaping. Whether you’ve got an embarrassingly sparse lawn or want to plant drought-resistant plants, the extension agent or volunteer master gardeners can help.
You can learn about a range of lawn and garden topics, including native plants, how to prune shrubs or trees, composting and vegetable gardening.
5. Nutrition and Fitness
Keeping communities healthy is a core value of county extension programs, so offering fitness classes and nutrition resources is a natural offshoot of that mission.
At Cornell’s Clinton County Cooperative Extension, you’ll find workout routines geared toward older adults, including virtual classes charmingly titled “Chair Chi.” Arkansas has an Extension Get Fit strength training program that costs $20 a year.
Penn State hosts online cooking classes. Minnesota and Michigan extension offices offer Cooking Matters courses for adults, families and teens.
6. Food Safety
Whether it’s a certification for food handling or canning classes, your extension office teaches how to process, preserve and serve the spoils of your garden and other perishable goods safely.
Want to start canning but anxious you’ll screw it up? Keep a lid on your worries with these canning tips for beginners.
7. Business Leadership and Entrepreneurship
Helping small business owners and entrepreneurs grow new skill sets is a surprising extension service that grew out of the effort to support farmers.
For example, UCSC’s Silicon Valley extension office has affordable certification programs in business administration, human resources, marketing, procurement and project management.
8. Financial Literacy
It might not have been your first thought, but the extension office has expanded its mission to saving communities money through financial literacy. Contact your county extension to see if they offer classes in your location.
Keeping backyard bees created a lot of buzz a few years ago, and it’s still a popular pastime. Many extension offices have classes on caring for bees where you can meet fellow beekeepers and start your own hive mind.
Oregon State has a Master Beekeeper Program that offers apprentice, journey and master level certifications and a swarm of students on call to relocate colonies.
10. Raising Chickens
If the cost of eggs has you dreaming of your own backyard coop, look no further than the extension office. Some offices run classes on raising chicks and the challenges of keeping poultry healthy.
In case you’ve chickened out on raising birds, Penn State offers a certification course in becoming a poultry welfare officer and Maryland provides information on processing chickens.
11. Sewing and Quilting
If you’ve dropped more than your share of stitches, maybe it’s time to put a pin in the extension office sewing classes. North Carolina’s Cooperative Extension runs adult sewing classes where you’ll learn to follow a pattern, do patchwork and make your own apron or pillowcases.
Check out these step-by-step instructions to sewing skills everyone needs, including how to sew on a button.
On the hunt for a new pastime that’ll add value to your pantry? Take a class in foraging at your county cooperative extension.
The University of Georgia has a Master Foraging program that teaches you how to safely harvest and prepare wild herbs, fungi and more.
13. Water Testing
Whether urban or rural, water quality is a concern every community shares. That’s why extension offices may provide water testing kits that can flag unsafe levels of contaminants in well and pond water on your property.
Trying to cut back on bottled water? Pull up a pitcher because we’ve got the scoop on cheap water filtration, reusable bottles and more.
14. Field Dressing
Hunters, fishers and farmers face a similar dilemma. Poor field dressing could result in the spread of disease and the loss of meat.
Extension offices provide training on how to safely dispose of diseased carcasses and field dress fish and game. Kentucky’s Field to Fork program lays out what you need to know to hunt, from calling a turkey to processing a deer.
15. Parenting and Child Development
Handling wild things sometimes falls under the domain of the county extension office — and that apparently includes children of the human variety. Extension offices may help with parenting skills, navigating developmental disabilities such as autism and supporting young families with an array of classes.
Additionally, when parents divorce, courts can require them to complete co-parenting classes frequently offered through the local extension office.
The Iowa State extension even produces a podcast called “The Science of Parenting” to share “real-life solutions based on the latest scientific research.”
16. Disaster Preparedness
After historic flooding in 1993, extension offices partnered with emergency preparedness agencies to create a network called EDEN (Extension Disaster Education Network).
The network’s mission is to prepare the public for natural disasters and to help coordinate national and local relief services.
How to Find Your Local County Extension Office
Not sure where to find your local extension office? No problem.
Typically when you search for the term “extension office near me,” Google or another search engine will pull up the closest locations. If not, you can consult this list of land-grant universities or this map of USDA state partners, many of which run cooperative extension offices in partnership with the USDA.
Kaz Weida is a senior staff writer at The Penny Hoarder covering saving money and budgeting. As a journalist, she has written about a wide array of topics including finance, health, politics, education and technology for the last decade.