say thank you to a cooperative extension staffer today

Green‘TIS THE SEASON to be jolly, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t still be giving thanks. How about sending your Cooperative Extension’s staff a holiday greeting? A recent opinion piece on the state of Extension (which celebrated its centennial in 2014) got me thinking about agents and specialists who have made a difference to me, and feeling grateful to them. It also heightened my concern that the consumer-facing role of Extension I have many times benefited from as a gardener may be at risk.

“Extension is that part of academia tasked with delivering research based information to those who can use it,” Jeff Gillman, who was an Extension specialist for 15 years, writes in “Some Thoughts About Extension” on the Garden Professors blog at Extension.org.

It’s an important function, he adds, “because it provides a link between us and the people who do research that impacts us.”

Now here’s the big-deal part, again in Gillman’s words:

“Extension personnel are usually non-biased individuals who deliver research-based information…. If you aren’t getting your information from someone in Extension, then you’re probably getting it from someone who stands to profit from whatever information they provide. This alone makes Extension important.”

Do you want to get all your advice from advisers with a vested interest in the subject at hand—from manufacturer-funded “research,” or even from sales staff at a big-box store whose training will have at least in part come from the manufacturer reps of the products for sale there? I’d prefer to learn from someone who puts the practices and products to the test in a more neutral environment.

WHEN RICHARD WEIR of Nassau County Extension on Long Island taught me decades ago to water a newly planted tree, he mentioned one possible tactic: I could use a slow-release watering bag that had been recently introduced to the marketplace. He wasn’t on the marketer’s payroll, but he knew I might not be patient enough to do the drip, drip, drip over many hours myself, then repeat and repeat until the tree was well-settled.

He didn’t care if I bought the product, but did care if I understood what the tree wanted: slow, sustained water percolating downward throughout the root zone, as if it were dropping from the sky gently over time (or from that perforated bag). What it did not want was for me to stand there aiming my hose-end sprayer at the trunk, as if I were washing my car.

I have never forgotten. I never purchased the bag, but I got the idea—and not just as it applies to tree watering, but this:

In much of gardening, slow wins the race. Thanks, Richard, for not making claims of “instant,” “easy,” and “no-care” gardens, filling me with unrealistic expectations but instead showing me how to be a steward to my garden.

Richard’s colleague, Donna Moramarco, got me thinking about the importance of calendaring my chores, so I didn’t get overwhelmed—but also so I didn’t forget who needed what and when among my botanical companions. She and her staffmates were always there with timely suggestions, and after a few years of paying attention, I began to get the hang of the rhythm myself. (No surprise that the nursery where she now handles education and marketing has a monthly calendar, too.)

Daughtrey_MEven now, decades since I moved from Long Island, when I get news of some outbreak—like Impatiens downy mildew, remember?—I look to see if Margery Daughtrey (left), a renown plant pathologist of ornamental crops based in Riverhead, at the Suffolk County Extension, has published anything about it, or been quoted in the trade publications. A trusted source for me, then and still.

I can tell you that it wasn’t just me who learned from these specific Extension experts. My old friend Anne Raver, longtime garden writer for “The New York Times” and elsewhere, often relied on Richard and Donna and Margery, too.

So how about it? Is there someone from Extension—a Master Gardener, an Extension agent, a Senior Extension Associate like Daughtrey, even maybe someone all the way back to 4-H, if you were started there—who took the time to help you? Maybe you want to tell them so.

Turns out we can also say thank you by actually donating to your state or county Extension, too, or at least joining. Again: ‘Tis the season.

find your extension office

DON’T KNOW WHICH county Extension office is the one nearest you? The Zip code-based finder tool on the homepage of Extension.org can get you started.

  1. Renay says:

    Love this post! I am a volunteer extension master gardener in Minnesota and feel this service is important (though sometimes less-than-appreciated). One of our counties almost decided not to fund our part-time coordinator position for 2015 – until our volunteer group turned out en masse to protest. Thanks for highlighting the value this program brings to all!

  2. Kat says:

    Yes! Thanks to all the staff everywhere.
    Even more thanks to all the volunteers. As budgets are being cut, Extension Master Gardeners are losing funding, and in at least one instance in my state the volunteers must actually pay rent to the county in order to perform this volunteer work. It’s hard to believe folks are content to get their directions from the companies that exist to take their money instead of folks who are trained to freely give proper help, and whose solutions frequently won’t cost the gardener a penny.

    1. Bill says:

      You are absolutely right. Extension could not reach as many people as we do, without the dedicated Extension Master Gardener Volunteers. They are the backbone of our communications and knowledge based sharing programs.

      Thank you Master Gardeners all across America!

  3. Beverly, zone 6, eastern PA says:

    My county cooperative extension is one mile from my home. I was trained there as a Master Gardener 22 years ago. I loved every minute of the training, the field trips, the special speakers, the fat notebook of lecture topics, the camaraderie of like-minded individuals. We volunteered as community resources and assistants, even answering phone calls from home gardeners, farmers and nurseries. Our trainers, the folks who work there, are WORTH THEIR WEIGHT IN GOLD !!! I often refer new gardeners to the county cooperative extension for insight, information and support for their planting adventures. PRICELESS.

  4. Nancy in NW PA says:

    I retired from a career in Cooperative Extension in PA a few years ago. It was the best job I ever had and easily the busiest (I worked in five rural counties). Funding has continually eroded and the position I held as Family Living educator vanished with my retirement – yet people in the community still call me for info on food safety and health issues as well as gardening and community development.

  5. My 1958 4-H record book was found in the attic of our old family hone this spring.
    So I sent a thank you to the current director of 4-H for my county as a reassurance that there work has long lasting results.

  6. Linda says:

    I’m a Master Gardener with Extension. I love the work we do.

    I will say though, there is, unfortunately, corporate funding for research done by Extension universities. This summer one of our MG Idea Exchange talks was given by an Extension employee involved in GMO research at the university. He also grows GMO crops on his own farm. The talk was totally pro-GMO. Even at our end-of-year certification celebration the subject came up again, touting how “we now know the ‘facts’ on GMO safety and their importance for agriculture.” Extension information is not always objective and IMHO focuses too heavily on fossil-fuel fertilizers, pesticide use and application, and GMO technology, at least in my state. I feel that is at least in part due to funding from multi-national chemical companies.

    Most of the Master Gardeners I know, thankfully, are environmentalists and garden organically. I understand Extension is also serving conventional farmers and home gardeners. I would like to see official Extension IPM policies and advice to farmers leaning a lot more heavily on sustainable and organic gardening and farming.

  7. Dixie says:

    Am proud to serve our county as a Master Gardener for 14+ years, continually learning more with thanks to the continually evolving research based information we dispense to our community. The training influenced and informed the organic uses in my own garden. Your comment on “showing how to be a good steward to your garden” resonated loudly and I plan to use it in future presentations. Thank you for recognizing Cooperative Extension !

  8. Minnie says:

    Extension staff and volunteers served as surrogate family when I began gardening in the mid 1970s. My parents were gardeners, but they were a thousand miles a day, and long-distance phone charges allowed only weekly conversations with them. Some weeks I must have called the extension service three or four times with questions about pests and what all. My brand new double-dug, bio-intensive beds might not have been the norm in these suburbs, but the office helped give me the confidence to build what turned into a very successful vegetable garden. I’m grateful for their information and patience.

  9. Kathy Sturr of the Violet Fern says:

    This is wonderful! I am so thankful for our extension in Jefferson County, NY. I have participated in their Master Gardener program and my teacher is wonderful – a wealth of knowledge and always answering questions! She even helped me to identify an invasive and eradicate it from the place where I work. I enjoy our monthly meetings and volunteering also. It is a wonderful way to connect and help the community. Thank you Margaret for bringing extensions, and all they do and know, to the forefront.

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