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Educating people in the art of growing

The flowers, weeds and bugs that come with the showers of spring lead to more of the questions by phone, email and regular mail.

Those questions make Vicki Jancef love her job.

As the horticulture educator at Cornell Cooperative Extension, her work sometimes seems like the crime scene detective show, "CSI."

"I like to not just give people the answer to their problems but to educate them," she said.

Last week, a guy called and said he thought he found a killer bee on his windshield. She knows weather here is too cold for the Africanized honey bees to thrive, but it was such a mild winter that she called the state specialist to double check, and she was right: Recent frosts would be deadly to the bees.

The caller took a photo and saw that it looked like internet images. When Jancef looked at the picture he sent by email, she agreed the bee looked like it could be the dangerous variety. But the expert told her their looks are impossible to distinguish from regular bees.

It is their behavior as a group that is deadly. While five native honeybees may attack a human, the Africanized bees can swarm by the hundreds.

"The single bee is not going to kill you," Jancef said.

This is the kind of exchange that she loves and that starts to happen more when spring arrives.

"People are getting out into their yards and have questions about planting and about the way things survive the winter or didn't survive the winter," said Jancef, whose 11 years of work at cooperative extension offices has included stints in Erie and Niagara in addition to her current Orleans post.

Jancef, who grew up in Lockport and lives in Wilson, has a bachelor's degree in horticulture from Cornell and a master's degree in education from the University at Buffalo and is a past instructor of horticulture at Niagara County Community College.

The cooperative extension service is an informal national education service designed to "extend" university agricultural knowledge and research. The department of agriculture supports the program which is managed in each state by a "land-grant" university, established in part with a mission to teach citizens about agriculture.

New York has 54 offices managed by Cornell University: Most counties have one, but some double up. They select areas of education based on local interests, such as nutrition, wood lot management and water quality.

So, Cooperative Extension has teams of specialists who may help local farmers with fruit, vegetables, dairy and even maple syrup. There's a grape team in the grape-growing areas. You focus on noncommercial, running the master gardener program and on the needs of residents and homeowners.

If you have a question on, basically, anything in your environment, it would come to me.

So if someone calls and asks me a question, and I don't know the answer, I can go to a specialist at Cornell. If they can't find it at Cornell, they will go to another university to find the answer. Or, all the way up to the Smithsonian. We are pretty good at finding answers amongst ourselves. We haven't really been stumped by anything."

People who take the course in master gardening learn the basics of outdoor plant care and work as extension deputies?

They're a trained group of volunteers that we use as "multipliers" to try and get our information out. If I have my group of 25 volunteers and I tell them we've got a problem with tomato late blight, which we had couple years ago it's a fungus disease that rapidly kills tomatoes and potatoes. That's what caused the potato famine in Ireland. If I tell my group of master gardeners, then they're from areas all across the county: church groups, civic groups, and that further gets the information from just sitting here in the office.

The Extension is trying to break into social media. We haven't necessarily bridged that gap, I would say.

I've always been impressed by master gardener certification, but I don't think I understood what it was until now.

The name master gardener has pretty good name recognition, even more so than the Cooperative Extension program. It's got quite a mystique about it.

They go through a 10-week training program. After we've trained them, the theory is they go out and share the information that we've armed them with. They do events such as a garden tour and a plant sale and education day in the spring, as well as going to farmers' markets and setting up a booth to answer questions. They answer questions here in the office. They'll come here and take phone messages.

This summer, we're trying to launch a community gardening program to help teach people to learn to grow vegetables. We are going to have garden beds here at the Extension office. People are going to come here and plant their vegetables. It's still in the formation stage.

Why now? Why is it important -- now, more than any other time -- to teach people to grow vegetables?

People have become more detached from the land in general and we've got generations now that think that food comes in boxes and cans and having an appreciation for the way things grow is really critically important now.

So you feel like people don't have a proper appreciation of plants and their need for a healthy, unpolluted environment?

Plants are the main basis on the earth for energy. They're the only ones on this planet that can convert solar energy to a usable form for life. Because plants take solar energy and convert it into sugar that's the energy force for everything on earth. That one process of photosynthesis is what powers the entire earth. It's not just plants. Insects are critically important to the plants: 99 percent of the insects are not pest problems.

The general mindset of most people is if it crawls, we want it dead. We can't have that. We need insects. We need insects to survive. The plants need them, and they're part of the food chain in a lot of instances.

And dirt?

Soil is another critically important thing that people disregard. Soil is actually an entire living ecosystem. The soil is actually teeming with life. People actually think it's something that sticks to your shoe and is nonliving.

So we need the healthy soils to support healthy plants, and plants need the bugs, and animals need the bugs and the plants, and it's all interconnected. We've got such a large number of people that need to be fed. So many people are misusing the environment. Eventually it will crash if we don't take care of it.

So you are like a reference library for plant, dirt and bug questions?

We supply information to people that is reliable. If you ask a salesperson, they're going to try to sell you a product. We're unbiased with the information that we give out. We have a network of specialists that we can turn to that pretty much find answers to just about anything.

Why should people get in touch with an Extension office instead of using the Internet?

The Internet is giving out a lot of misinformation, or not enough information. I had a woman last summer who called and said she had an Emerald ash borer that she found on the door. So we went out and retrieved the insect, which was actually a cicada, which is 10 times the size.

To a person not trained in insects, a green bug looks like a green bug.

Jancef can be reached at (585) 798-4265, Ext. 33, or vhj3@cornell.edu. Her office is at the Orleans County Fairgrounds, 12690 Route 31, Knowlesville. To find an Extension office near you, visit: cce.cornell.edu/learnabout/pages/local_offices.aspx

Know a Niagara County resident who'd make an interesting question-and-answer column? Write to: Bruce Andriatch, Q&A, The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, NY 14240, or email niagaranews@buffnews.com