When I started my professional career 45 years ago, it was in rural upstate New York as a cooperative extension agent in community resource development. Along with my fellow extension agents in agriculture, horticulture and home economics, we were tasked with bringing research-based information from the state’s land grant college (Cornell University’s College of Agriculture) to bear on practical problems of households, landowners, community enterprises and local government.
As educators and facilitators, we strengthened individuals’ and communities’ ability to successfully deal with real-life problems, from farm pests and diseases, making a family food budget stretch further, to teaching newly elected officials how to efficiently run a public meeting using Robert’s Rules of Order.
It was, and as cooperative extension continues to be, all about empowering people with reliable information so they can solve their own problems and improve their lives and communities. My early first-hand experience of this approach has influenced all the work I’ve done since.
An interesting example of the cooperative extension approach and its benefits is the master gardener program. To complement the work of professional extension agents, members of the community from almost any background are offered several weeks of faculty-led, in-depth training, covering the fundamentals of sustainable home gardening, geared to that region and including: botany basics, soil health, herbaceous plants, vegetable garden planning and productivity, entomology basics, integrated pest management, plant diseases, tree fruit, tree care, pollinator plants, small fruit, integrated landscape design and volunteering.
Volunteering is the program’s special sauce.
Participants who successfully complete the course are certified as an extension master gardener with a commitment to provide required number of hours (typically 50-100) over the next two years, volunteering in the community educating others on home horticulture topics.
This innovative, person-to-person way of extending scientific information from the university into the community benefits both the master gardener and the recipient. The recipient often finds help solving or improving a garden problem or situation. The master gardener has the satisfaction of passing along reliable information to fellow garden enthusiasts. The community benefits from more people successfully growing food and tending environmentally friendly landscapes, which can help knit communities together.
University of Vermont Extension began offering this program in 1991, and it has quickly grown strong. And they have repeated the model with a parallel master composter program in support of home composting.
To facilitate certified master gardener activity in the community, the University of Vermont Extension maintains a registry of qualifying community projects seeking volunteer expertise, where master gardeners are encouraged to volunteer as part of their community service. There are currently more than 90 educational gardening projects throughout the state with master gardeners or master composters partnered with schools, libraries, municipalities, museums, historical landmarks, farmers markets and nonprofit organizations to provide educational exhibits, information tables and demonstration gardens that teach about sound gardening and composting practices. The range of projects is delightfully wide, and the results especially satisfying because of the person-to-person interactions.
In Charlotte we have two such community projects regularly benefiting from master gardener volunteers: a butterfly garden at Quinlan Covered Bridge on Lewis Creek, created with native plants and pollinator-attracting perennials suitable for our heavy clay soil to provide food for wildlife and demonstrate what neighbors could do in their gardens, and the Charlotte Library Educational Gardens, part of the library’s Seed Library programs which encourage and support community members growing more of their own food using eco-friendly and sustainable methods, and supports biodiversity, soil health, pollinator-friendly flowering plants, herbs and other edibles.
Another important component of the program is the University of Vermont Extension helpline, staffed by master gardener and master composter volunteers. This is reachable by phone or email and serves many hundreds of Vermonters a year with home horticulture and integrated pest management information.
Yes, one can search the internet or library for information about gardening problems, and there is plenty available, but the significant advantage of the helpline is that it draws on information and science relevant specifically to Vermont conditions. It has the added benefit of direct one-on-one interaction between people, which is generally a richer and more satisfying form of education because it allows for questions and clarifications. That is something a computer screen or book cannot offer.
To explore becoming an extension master gardener or master composter yourself, see http://tinyurl.com/nhkrwrbe. To improve your own garden, consider learning through volunteering with one of the master gardener projects in town mentioned above. Email for more information.
Until April, the program doesn’t have help by phone, but don’t hesitate to contact a master gardener online when you have questions at http://tinyurl.com/ms8rpuup. They will be happy to help.
(Linda Hamilton is a member of Charlotte Grange whose slogan is: Honoring our agricultural roots and helping build a resilient future for all.)