When I was informed of the vast number of evolving, low-cost, or no-cost classes available through the University of Tennessee Extension program, my first thought was how such a massive asset could slip under the radar. A perfect continuation of the ideals set forth by the Morrill Act of 1862, UT Extension utilizes its land and resources to offer a wide variety of classes; from agriculture specific, to cooking, to tai chi, to communication in relationships. What’s more, each county in Tennessee has its own extension office that regularly accepts outside input with regard to classes that should be offered.
The Morrill Act of 1862 was landmark legislation signed by Abraham Lincoln, and it gave federal land grants to universities that sought to provide education in agriculture and mechanical skills. This was in order to make higher education accessible to anyone, regardless of economic background or interests.
The University of Tennessee was established with this act, and since then has expanded its resources far beyond Knoxville. The land is used for applied research, which then informs the classes offered statewide. Rachel Painter, an extension specialist, and Elizabeth Sanders, a county director in Davidson County, are two wholeheartedly good-willed people who were happy to share information on the breadth of the program.
WHAT THEY DO
Painter’s passion for what she does is palpable even over the internet. She very rapidly explained the breadth of classes offered through UT Extension. There are three main umbrellas under which classes fall: Agriculture and Natural Resources, Family and Consumer Science, and 4H Youth Development. “About half of our programs are for low-income audiences,” explains Sanders. However, the extension has many classes and events that are open to the public.
The program reaches much of its clientele via word of mouth. “We’re an office of eighteen in a town of 700,000,” laughs Sanders. “We try to reach out to individuals, but partnerships make a big difference.” The whole system functions in collaboration with groups like the Farm Bureau, Med America, and the Tennessee Cattlemen’s Association. Through these, the program reaches interested participants and is able to compile further resources for their classes. Partnerships also allow the 4H program to hold contests and offer scholarships to their winners. Extension classes are kept at a fairly low cost for individuals, with some offered for free. Commercial classes tend to be about $100, with the Lawn Care Specialist Certification class costing $250.
Agriculture and Natural Resources class cover topics like economic development for farmers, food production, pest management, and sustainable land practices. These exist only to support the agricultural industry in Tennessee with the best available research and information—enhancing productivity and promoting the most effective methods of running a farm. Across the state, the focus of these classes tends to be different, reflecting the different industries in each county.
Painter explains that while classes around dairy farming are popular in the East, Middle Tennessee tends to offer more on beef cattle. In the West, soy, cotton, and corn take the spotlight. She also addresses the value of land-based research, stating that UT holds “probably the top turf researchers in the world.” This means that certification programs offered through UT, like the Lawn Care Specialist and Master Gardener programs, build upon extensive knowledge that researchers have gathered. “Extension folks take the research and educate with it,” she explains. Extension agents also make site visits to farms statewide in order to offer specialized advice and assistance.
The real surprises come from UT’s Family and Consumer Science classes. These come in such a great variety that it would be silly to list them all. A sampling, however, includes classes on disaster recovery, first-time home buying, sewing, food preservation and canning, and most recently, finance management. Sanders herself often teaches canning and food preservation classes in Davidson County, and as I spoke with her she waited for a flight to Senegal to do the same. The on-site gardens run by the program are a great resource for ingredients. Davidson County also offers a class on foraging, run by Andy Lance. Painter extolls “learning by doing” to teach people who never learned the kinds of life skills that will make them happy, healthy, and successful in various endeavors.
The 4H program is probably the most well known branch of the extension, with numerous classes, after school programs and day camps offered to children from the fourth grade on. 4H is the largest youth organization in the nation, bringing 3,000 children across the state to summer camp each year. Children in 4H programs can learn everything from agriculture to electrical engineering to fashion design from real professionals, only paying for classes to cover the cost of supplies.
“It’s a great way to get youth involved in the local community,” says Painter. Professionals and experts of different types are welcome to volunteer with 4H or the UT Extension more generally—if there is interest, there is an opening. “If you know a lot about birds, you can teach birdwatching,” she expounds.
Events are also a big part of outreach for the entire program. At the Rutherford County Farmers Market, for example, the extension hosts “come and go” classes every Tuesday and Friday, letting passersby join in for free to learn a simple skill (like sewing a button).
In Davidson County, the first Saturday of each month of the school year is designated as Fun Saturday. Students are welcome to come learn hands-on at a farm, band camp, and more.
Fruits of the Backyard is an annual, open to the public event where anyone is welcome to come and learn how to grow a new fruit each year—check it out this year on June 13th at the Middle Tennessee AgResearch and Education Center in Spring Hill from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m.
Anyone interested in more extension classes is welcome to call their local county office by telephone to see what’s available. Sanders also suggests checking the Davidson County Extension Office Facebook page, which is updated regularly. “People are really searching for that sense of community,” declares Painter. “UT Extension is a great place to start.”
“The work we get to do is amazing,” says Sanders, “and I work with some of the best people around.” Both Painter and Sanders enjoy connecting with different people who share their values and understand the importance of community. One such person is Roni McGregory, who recently collaborated with Sanders by participating in an African Heritage class at her church. McGregory says that the class exceeded the expectations of all involved and that she speaks for everyone in saying, “We loved this class because not only did it introduce and reintroduce produce to us, but [Sanders] taught us the African connections to the fruits, herbs, spices, and veggies.”
While the participants supplied their church space, Sanders brought all of the food, hot plates, and cookware through extension. McGregory and her peers enjoyed the food they learned to make, and much of it was from recipes they selected themselves, crafted with simple and accessible ingredients. A number of attendees were so inspired by this experience that they have now reached out to volunteer or work with UT extension themselves.
Declares McGregory, “The work that UT extension is doing needs to be known and the community should definitely partner with them.” Both Sanders and Painter echo the same sentiment and adore the work they are able to do each day. Sanders comments that though extension is spread statewide, there is always a sense of shared values, and never an atmosphere of competition. She, and others within the program, fully embrace the wide variety of evolving work they do. “Every day looks different, but every day is impactful,” states Sanders.