Master gardener training creates volunteers

This photograph taken in a kitchen setting in Medford, Oregon, shows Master Food Preserver Michele Pryse teaching Oregon State University Extension clients safe canning techniques. The 398 volunteers in Oregon State’s Master Food Preservers program donated an estimated 21,250 hours of service to their communities in 2016. Research-based training elevates volunteers into community stewards. (AP photo)

Like gardening? Want to share your skills with your community or family? Master Gardener programs are creating an army of volunteers who contribute hours of stewardship.

Specialties run the gamut, although most focus on nutrition. There are Master Food Preservers, Master Beekeepers, Master Recyclers, Master Naturalists, Master Wellness Volunteers, Master Financial Volunteers, Master Clothing Construction Volunteers, Watershed Master Volunteers and many more.

Certified Master programs usually are provided by university Extension services and their county-run offices. The programs require several months of science-based training in classrooms and in the field. Volunteers, who pay a fee for the instruction, are certified upon graduating and committing to a specified period of service.

They share what they’ve learned about skills ranging from safe canning practices to raising organic vegetables, from restoring streambeds to energy conservation.

Some specialties address regional or consumer interests. Kentucky’s Master Clothing Construction program was designed to foster family sewing skills. The Master Wellness program run by Texas A&M AgriLife Extension provides health and nutrition tips.

Montana State’s Master Family & Consumer Science Volunteer program helps teach volunteers the history of Cooperative Extension and consumer sciences, said program manager Barbara Allen.

“We need volunteers to have good backgrounds on their mission. They in turn will help folks at the county level launch Master Volunteer programs,” she said.

Public funding for Extension services has dropped sharply over the years while information requests have risen, often overwhelming staff, Allen said.

“Our hope is these volunteers help alleviate some of that Extension workload,” she said. “That they provide more outreach. The idea is to empower and educate the general public.”

The Oregon State University Extension Service’s Master Beekeeper program has 145 volunteer mentors who train apprentice-level beekeepers, said spokeswoman Kym Pokorny.

“Many of these mentors are also in the advanced level (program),” she said. “This level emphasizes community service.”

Mentor beekeepers have contributed more than 4,200 volunteer hours since beginner-level training began in 2013, Pokorny said.

The 398 volunteers in Oregon State’s Master Food Preservers program donated 21,250 hours last year, while the state’s 1,900 active Master Gardeners recorded 71,221 direct public interactions, she said. Master Gardeners “volunteered nearly 145,000 hours of service valued at $3.3 million,” Pokorny said. “They gave food banks approximately 65,000 pounds of fresh produce harvested from community and demonstration gardens that they manage.”

Arizona recently incorporated a Master Naturalist program that is being tested in Tucson and will go statewide, said Peter Warren, with University of Arizona Cooperative Extension.

“We’re trying to generate a place for volunteers to be trained to work with schools and parks and many other organizations,” Warren said. “The problem in the West is that we’re really spread out. It’s hard to serve the population that way. Our Masters really help.”