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Volunteers help county Extension offices operate

By Sharon Omahen
University of Georgia

As state agencies struggle to operate under budget cuts and hiring freezes, volunteers can make a big difference in keeping their programs effective. At the University of Georgia, Master Gardeners do just that.

"We've always relied heavily on our Master Gardener volunteers," said Mel Garber, associate dean for Extension at the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

"Master Gardeners play critical roles in delivering consumer horticulture information to people across the state," Garber said. "As a state agency, we're able to make state dollars go farther by maximizing the use of our volunteer work force."

Marco Fonseca, the Georgia Master Gardener coordinator, said more than 2,200 people worked for UGA last year for 141,911 hours and never drew paychecks.

Cost of training

To become a Master Gardener in Georgia, you have to apply to the program, be accepted and complete a three-month training program and a 50-hour volunteering requirement.

The classroom and hands-on training costs around $120 (about $6 each for 20 twice-a-week sessions) and includes a 600-page Master Gardener manual. The instructors are county agents, UGA Extension specialists, Master Gardeners and green industry professionals.

Master Gardener volunteers must work at least 50 hours within one year of their training. They work with their county Extension office, where the program is administered. The county agent decides how the Master Gardeners donate their hours.

"Many of our Master Gardeners stand in for our county agents when the public calls a county office," said Krissy Slagle, a Georgia Master Gardener program assistant. "It's important that they answer a consumer's question and answer it correctly. And the training program prepares them to do so."

Big in the city

Helping county agents answer phone calls and e-mails is especially helpful in metro areas, Slagle said.

"In Atlanta, some county agents get 150 to 170 horticulture calls per day," she said. "The heaviest need we've had for Master Gardeners is in the northern part of the state, where the population is heavier and agents receive more calls than they can handle alone. We're very interested in having the program grow in the southern part of the state, though."

Master Gardeners work outside of county Extension offices, too.

"In Fulton County, the Master Gardeners put in a Gold Medal plant garden in Centennial Olympic Park," Slagle said. "Several Master Gardener groups put in 'Plant-a-Row for the Hungry' gardens, where the vegetables are donated to the needy. And Master Gardeners are working with Habitat for Humanity, installing plants and teaching the new homeowners how to care for the plants."

In schools, too

Fonseca said another new part of the program is the Teacher Master Gardener Program. Offered in the summer, this condensed program trains teachers to develop lesson plans centered around horticulture.

"The teachers then go back and coordinate the installation of school gardens that are used as teaching tools," Fonseca said. "We've had 150 teachers participate so far."

Surprisingly, you don't have to have a green thumb to be a Master Gardener in Georgia. You just have to have a giving heart.

"Most people assume the Master Gardener program centers around gardening," Slagle said. "Volunteering is the real meat of the program. And most of the volunteering centers around gardening."

Yesterday, today

The program was developed by Extension Service faculty at Washington State University in the early 1970s. Since then it has spread throughout the United States and Canada.

Many county agents are accepting applications now for Master Gardener trainings to begin in January 2005. Contact your county extension office for details.

If you can't take part in the program, you can still buy the Master Gardener Handbook. Mail your order to: Georgia Master Gardener Program, 1109 Experiment Street, Cowart Building, Griffin, GA 30223. Include a check for $60, payable to "UGA CES."

(Sharon Omahen is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

(Sharon Omahen is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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