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Great Gardening by Sally Cunningham: Cooperative Extension’s role in advancing agriculture remains vital

Once Extension, always Extension.” I heard that odd expression recently at New England GROWS, an education conference and industry trade show in Boston. I was walking the show to check out new products and plants, and I overheard a man answering a question about soil pH and microorganisms.

His booth displayed Bloem Bagz (pocket planters and bags for container gardening). I stepped up and mentioned that somebody – maybe himself – gave me a sample bag at a GWA (Garden Writers) conference and I liked it. He said, “Well that would be me.” I added that I appreciated his thorough soil explanation. Was he trained in agriculture? He answered: “Oh. I’m a former Extension agent from Long Island ... ” And we were off and talking, with a lot of people, values and science in common.

Cooperative Extension work has traditionally been a possible career choice for agriculture or horticulture students upon graduating from an agricultural or land-grant college. In 1890 the federal government ceded land for use by agricultural colleges and in 1914 established the Cooperative Extension system. The idea was to make higher education (in agriculture and home economics primarily) available to all the people. The county offices were an “extension” of the land-grant schools.

Looking back even further, the roots of Cooperative Extension defined all that it is today. The Hatch Act in 1887 established an “experimental station” at Tuskegee Institute for agricultural research. Seaman A. Knapp (later called the father of Extension) observed that farmers learned best and accepted new agricultural practices when they saw them demonstrated on their own farms. He started a “demonstration movement.” At Tuskegee Institute in the 1890s, Booker T. Washington sent George Washington Carver out with supplies and tools in a buggy to teach the farmers, many of them former slaves. Carver’s movable school later used a stagecoach. In 1892 Tuskegee held the first annual Negro Farmers Conference, attracting 500 farmers to learn science-based practices. The purpose even then included outreach – to encourage the educated to spread their information to others.

The premises and the language live on: 4-H students learn to give demonstrations in which they teach others how to compost with worms, blanch a cauliflower, groom a horse or plant seeds. We have the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station (NYSAES) at Geneva, doing agricultural research from fruit farming to beer production. Master Gardener volunteers in every state are trained and then go forth to schools, community gardens or libraries to teach science-based gardening or test and explain soil pH. Land-grant colleges (Cornell, Penn State and the Universities of Connecticut, Vermont, etc.) produce future “Ag” and “Hort” scientists and industry professionals. County Cooperative Extensions offer conferences for consumers or farmers, on-site education at tree farms or trial gardens, and collaborate with USDA partners on invasive plant and water quality projects. G.W. Carver would feel right at home.

Today funding is always the challenge. It comes and goes, state by state, county by country, often grant by grant. But Erie County Master Gardeners, Ag and Hort agents, and former agents – like the one I met in Boston and me – are still doing what Knapp and Booker T. Washington hoped: getting some science out to people.

The weight of science

In the words of Kermit the Frog: “It’s not easy being green.” Internalizing the mission can weigh on a person. Consider my dream:

I launched into this topic because I had a disturbing dream last night. In the dream I went into a Cooperative Extension office where there was a new agent and a master gardener hotline. (Mind you, this would not happen in Erie County or other New York offices; it’s a bad dream!) The volunteer at the garden hotline desk was casually telling somebody on the phone to spray a popular pesticide for a couple of “stinkie bugs” in the house. That didn’t sound right – no insect identification or IPM (Integrated Pest Management) approach there. (Honestly in my dream I just thought he was a real jerk.) I asked who the volunteer was and the agent said, “Oh Ron’s just helping out on the phone. I couldn’t get the Master Gardeners today.”

Phew. I went into a tailspin. Now, many of you know that I am not a contentious or aggressive person. I don’t look for a fight. But I told that agent, “That’s just wrong! He has no business answering pest questions! Don’t you know that it’s illegal (actually it is) to prescribe a pesticide unless the pest is accurately identified? And the pest must be listed on the pesticide label? This office represents Cornell! We give out science-based information and the public trusts us! What if the customer sprays that poison and the baby or the dog gets sick? Or he recommends products that get into the water, or hurt the birds? You can’t just tell people to spray something!”

Well, I told him! And I woke up ruminating about it. Even the stink bug bit hit home, as it’s another example of the difference between real information and over-the-fence talk.

About stink bugs

Gardeners and farmers have dealt with some stink bugs (insect family Pentatomidae) for decades – some real pests of crops and others beneficial predators of serious pests. Then in the 1990s the long-legged Western Conifer Seed Bug came east, a harmless but sometimes annoying large bug that gets inside houses. It just eats conifer seeds and we should simply put it outside; nothing to worry about. But about 1998 a new stink bug arrived from China (identified first in Allentown, Pa.): the BMSB or Brown Marmorated Stink Bug. This bad guy is already a widespread agricultural pest. Gardeners in Pennsylvania told me that the bugs also can come into houses by the thousands, smelling and staining and nearly impossible to eradicate. In China a certain parasitoid wasp seems to be the natural control but here we haven’t figured it out yet. The USDA and DEC and land-grant colleges are working on it. When they have good answers, you can expect them from officials and real Master Gardeners and their extension agents. Just don’t believe that guy Ron.

Now perhaps I will sleep better, having told you. Once Extension, always Extension.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.