Monday, September 22, 2014

The Positive Impacts of Master Gardener Training

Infographic created by Liz McGovern of Oregon State University Extension (Benton County), based upon data provided by Pami Opfer (Oregon State University Extension in Linn and Benton Counties).

This infographic does an excellent job of communicating the positive impacts of Master Gardener training in just 2 of the 29 counties where volunteers are trained in Oregon.

Way to go, Master Gardeners!  Knowledge is indeed power.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Oregon Adopts National Extension Master Gardener Program Standards

The Oregon State University (OSU) Extension Home Horticulture Working Group includes any OSU faculty or staff member who has responsibilities to the Master Gardener program as part of their assigned position description.  Across Oregon, there are ~27 faculty and staff who are officially part of the working group.  For some folks, the Master Gardener program represents a significant portion of their job.  For others, the Master Gardener program is a relatively small part of their overall responsibilities.

On July 11, 2014, *17 faculty and staff representing 19 county Master Gardener programs met for an all day work session in Corvallis, Oregon.  While Master Gardener Volunteers were attending Leadership Day classes, we were meeting next door to discuss issues, brainstorm solutions, preview tools, share ideas and network.  It was an incredibly productive session, where key decisions were made that impact the Master Gardener Program and the volunteers that we train and serve.

A Brief History of Extension Master Gardener Programs in the United States

The Master Gardener program was launched by Washington State University in 1973. By 1996, the Master Gardener program had spread and established in all 50 states. Today, Master Gardener programs are active in 9 Canadian provinces, as well as in South Korea.

Even though the Extension Master Gardener Program was created in the 1970s, and firmly established by the 1990s, it was not until 2006 that the Extension Master Gardener Program National Committee (EMGNC) was formed. The EMGNC facilitates national cooperation, communication and collaboration among Extension Master Gardener programs.

The endurance and expansion of the Extension Master Gardener (EMG) model is a testament to the program’s impact and success. However, the independent adoption of the Master Gardener Program model by individual states, territories and regions has occurred in the absence of a unifying mission or set of program standards. Although there is great value in providing for flexible programming, many EMG Coordinators at the state and local level have called for greater guidance on program policies.
In 2012, a special task force was appointed by the EMGNC, in response to outcomes of the 2012 National EMG Coordinators’ Conference that was held in Spokane, WA. The task force was charged with developing resources and national standards for Extension Master Gardener Programs.

The task force worked throughout 2013 to draft a list of program standards, seeking input from Master Gardener faculty, staff and volunteers throughout the process. These standards were forwarded to the Extension Master Gardener National Committee in late 2013. The Committee approved the standards (with minor edits) in January 2014.

The national standards for Extension Master Gardener Programs in the United States are:

Our National Standards: Extension Master Gardener programs are networks of land-grant university-trained volunteers, distinguished by the standards listed below. To achieve greater consistency in program management and the volunteer experience across the Cooperative Extension system nationally, state Extension Master Gardener programs will strive to meet these standards and ensure they are reflected in the statewide program.

Program Structure and Expectation Standards

  • has an established statewide organizational system
  • establishes state program goals that align to achieve the EMG program mission
  • engages in Extension-approved projects and programs designed to educate the public about horticulture and gardening
  • is accountable to state Extension leadership and local stakeholders
  • shows documented educational impact in local communities that demonstrates behavior change and public value
  • follows the Equal Opportunity Guidelines for their state and/or university
Volunteer Management and Preparedness Standards
  • uses recognized volunteer management practices
  • incorporates a system for volunteer leadership and development
  • uses an established state training curriculum (A suggested core curriculum includes Botany, Physiology, Soils, Basic Pathology, Entomology, Weeds, IPM, Vegetables, Fruits, Turf, Woody Ornamentals, Herbaceous Ornamentals, Composting, Diagnostics and Troubleshooting, Planting and Maintenance, Introduction to Extension Master Gardener Program, and Record Keeping and Reporting)
  • requires a measurement of volunteer competency following completion of state training program
  • requires volunteer service hours; 40-hour volunteer service minimum in the initial training year and 20-hour volunteer service minimum in subsequent years
  • requires annual continuing education and professional development hours; 10 hours minimum annually in years following initial training
  • uses an annual recertification criteria and process

National Extension Master Gardener Program Standards Adopted

A major focus of our July 11th working group agenda was to consider whether or not Oregon would adopt these new national standards.

Many of the national standards are things that we already do (or try to do) in Oregon.  The key parts of the standards that impact Oregon's Master Gardener Programs are:
  • requires volunteer service hours; 40-hour volunteer service minimum in the initial training year and 20-hour volunteer service minimum in subsequent years, and
  • requires annual continuing education and professional development hours; 10 hours minimum annually in years following initial training
There was some concern on the part of the representatives from the southern Oregon counties (Jackson, Josephine, Douglas, Curry) that the re certification requirements might: cause them to lose volunteers, require them to 'debadge' volunteers, cause dismay with their local MG Association.

Others thought that adopting the standards would: provide much-needed structure and guidance on recertification at the local level, ensure the quality of volunteer education and of the program.

The national standards were eventually adopted, by consensus decision.

What Does This Mean for Current Volunteers and County Programs?

What does this mean? Does it mean that programs will be 'decertified' or that individuals will be kicked out of the Master Gardener Program if they have not met the minimum re certification standards (10 hours of continuing education and 20 hours of volunteer service)? No! But it does mean that programs now have specific guidance on and guidelines for Master Gardener re certification.

Over the next 3-5 years, the Oregon Master Gardener Program (at state and county levels) will work to implement the new standards by:

1) informing Master Gardener volunteers that the national standards have been adopted in Oregon, as well as the reasons for the development of national standards, and the reasons that Oregon has moved to adopt these standards.  I've tried to provide information on the logic behind the development and adoption of the standards, above.

2) adjusting recertification requirements at the local level, as needed, setting a 3-5 year timeline as a goal to reach compliance with the standards.

3) training new Master Gardener volunteers (e.g. 'trainees') about the recertification requirements. Over time, as more volunteers are trained under the 'new' standards, it will increasingly become the norm.

4)  working to offer flexible options for recertification education hours (e.g. a take home test, online modules, etc.).  We currently have a few online options available for recertification hours, and will work to develop more in the coming years.  We will also work to develop assessment-based recertification options.

5) understand that life happens, and sometimes, a volunteer may need to put their MG status 'on hold'.  Be flexible, where needed.

Over the past 7 years that I've worked in the Master Gardener Program, I've realized that change rarely comes quickly or easily.  I'm excited about the adoption of the national standards and am hopeful that they will indeed provide much-needed structure and guidance on recertification at the local level and that they will help ensure the quality of volunteer education and of the program.  But, I recognize that there may be some 'growing pains' ~ particularly where recertification is concerned.  Our intention is to roll out the new standards in a way that is gradual (over 3-5 years) and well supported (e.g. offering more options for recertification credit hours) ~ in an effort to continue to offer high quality educational programs to our volunteers and advice that is reliable (science based), relevant (can be customized to anyone's gardening situation) and reachable (find us online, in the office, on the phone, in your community).
*Faculty and Staff in Attendance
Benton, Linn, Lane Counties
Brooke Edmunds

Central Oregon
AmyJo Detweiler
Tony Stephan

Curry County
Scott Thiemann

Steve Renquist

Hood River County
Steve Castagnioli
Rachel Suits

Jackson County
Bob Reynolds

Josephine County
Karen Pleasant

Lane County
Linda Renslow

Lincoln County
Liz Olsen

Marion / Polk Counties
Neil Bell

Portland Metro
Weston Miller
Jordis Yost
Margaret Bayne
Pukhraj Deol

Yamhill County
Heather Stoven

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Legislating Behavior and #Beewashing

Bees have been on my mind an awful lot, lately. And that's saying something ~ considering that I'm an entomologist who has spent a lot of time studying the bees the live in our gardens and parks, as a way to better understand how to garden in ways that protect (rather than harm) these beautiful jewels of the garden.

One of my favorite bees:  Agopostemum sp. (probably, Agopostemum virescens) on a sunflower in Spokane, WA.  Photgrapher:  Gail Langellotto

So, on a normal day, I think about bees quite a bit.  But lately, everywhere I turn, bees ~ and issues related to their conservation and protection ~ have been hitting me upside the head.

First, there was the news that Jeff Reardon (D-Portland) is considering legislation to restrict home gardener use of four neonicotinoid insecticides:  dinotefuran, imidacloprid, clothianidin and thiamethoxam.  Master Gardeners keep asking me what I think about this development, and our discussions have been really interesting.

Second, I received an email announcing that the Bayer Bee Care Tour is coming to Oregon.

It can be tough to write about pesticides and bees in such a public space.  There's so much rhetoric surrounding colony collapse disorder, bees and neonicotinoids that it can be difficult to separate sound science from sound bytes.

This is made even more difficult by the reality that sound bytes are easy to digest and even easier to propagate via the internet.
  • Sound byte:  neonicotinoids are killing honey bees.
By contrast, what we learn from sound science is usually much more complex and nuanced to communicate.
  • Science byte:  Many insecticides can have harmful impact on honey bees.  These harmful impacts are most apparent when pesticides are mis-used, such as being applied to plants in bloom or to areas with a lot of bee activity.  In addition to insecticides, habitat loss and development, the variable nutritional quality of a bee's diet, parasites and pathogens are implicated as being major threats to honey bee health.  It seems that honey bees are so immune-compromised, that adding on one additional stressor can have dire effects on hives.  But, if we focus on the impact of pesticides on honey bees, it's important to point out that beekeeper applied pesticides (to keep Varroa mites an other honey bee pests at bay) are a major source of honey bee exposure to pesticides.  It's not just growers applying pesticides to crops (although, this is also an important part of the picture that stresses bees).  But even if we take pesticides applied to crops out of the picture, honey bees would still be exposed to pesticides.  Bee keepers are really challenged to keep healthy hives with so much pest pressure on honey bees (mites, diseases, fungi), and so few options for control.  And, I could go on and on and on . . . because the story really is so complex.
But, I want to write about these things, because a major goal of my program is to ensure that home gardeners are informed and educated about current topics ~ so that they can make the best decisions for their particular gardening situation.  Knowledge is power, right?

So what do I think about the potential ban on home gardener use of neonicotinoids?  Well, it's complex (of course!).  I see value in neonic insecticides, and I have concerns about neonic pesticides.

Here is where I see value in neonics:
  1.  I like that they can be applied as a soil drench, which is a much easier pesticide application method for homeowners who need to treat a large tree or shrub, compared to a foliar insecticide spray.  I have seen too many bad examples of hose-end sprayer applications of insecticides to trees (e.g. homeowners standing underneath the drip line of the tree they were treating, or not being aware when the pesticide runs out ~ so that they continue to spray the tree with their hose ~ basically washing off the pesticide that they just applied).  Soil drenches, by comparison, are easier for most homeowners to apply in a way that does not expose them to the toxin, and in a way that may better target the intended pest ~ rather than dousing all insects that are in the canopy.
  2. Neonics have been a useful tool in protecting at risk trees (ash trees in the Mid-west) and ecosystems (hemlock forests in the NE) from large scale loss because of emerald ash borer or hemlock wooly adelgids, respectively.  In these instances, the products have been a useful tool in an overall integrated pest management approach to protect trees.  The IPM approach relies heavily on monitoring and quarantine in these instances.  The pesticides are not the first tool pulled out of the toolbox ~ but they are one aspect of an overall approach to protecting these trees.  And, these trees are pollinated by wind, and not insects ~ which reduces risk to bees and other pollinators.
Here is where I have concerns about neonics:
  1. My biggest concern over the last few years has been that most homeowners don't understand how persistent a neonic can be in a tree or a shrub.  I've written about this in a past blog post, and I've lectured on this extensively over the past few years ~ trying to raise awareness of this issue.  But, if you're reaching for a neonic in response to a one-time, ephermeral issue with aphids in your trees ~ you're reaching for the wrong product.  Better yet, many aphid outbreaks, if allowed to run their course, tend to disappear on their own.
  2. Honestly, many plants are fairly robust to pest damage.  The plants often recover.  A plant's tolerance for damage is often less than a gardener's tolerance for damage.  But, neonics are so easy to apply as a soil drench, that I worry that folks reach for them too often ~ as a quick and long-term way to keep their trees, shrubs and other woody plants free from damage.  This isn't IPM.  IPM is a well-thought out and informed approach to pest management that makes optimal use of all IPM tools, so that pesticide applications are reduced, targeted and effective.  
  3. I of course am concerned with the data that is accumulating on sub-lethal impacts of neonics on bees who gather nectar and/or pollen from flowering trees or shrubs that have been treated with a neonic.  The low doses of pesticide the bees get from the blooms is not enough to kill them, but it can be enough to change bee behavior in a way that has negative impacts on the hive.
What do I think about the proposed ban on neonics?  I have mixed emotions.
  1.  If banned, I guess I wouldn't have to worry about emphasizing the potential for long-term persistence of neonics in woody plants.  It wouldn't be a matter of educating homeowners to make better decisions about the products ~ because homeowners wouldn't have a choice.
  2. But ~ if banned, I'm really concerned that homeowners will instead reach for pesticide products that are broad-spectrum, foliar insecticide sprays.  These sprays have a much greater potential for harm to human health.  And, if mis-applied (such as the hose end sprayer example I gave earlier), these sprays could run off of the tree canopy and do real environmental harm ~ not to mention their broad impacts on insects that would be contacted by the spray.
  3. And, because of the value demonstrated by neonics in protecting at-risk, wind-pollinated trees, I do see a role for neonics in an IPM approach to plant protection.
What about my thoughts on the Bayer Bee Tour?

Well, the original stops on the Bayer Bee Tour included 'corn belt states'.  The tour appears to have been held from Feb. 26th-April 3rd, 2013.  But now, the Bayer Bee Tour is making its way to Oregon.  How curious, that the timing of a new stop on the Bayer Bee Tour happens so soon after Jeff Reardon's proposed legislation.

I'm not against Bayer ~ or any agrochemical company.  Bayer helps to develop new pesticide products that can be important tools in an IPM approach to plant protection.  And ~ before you jump on me for that last sentence, consider that one of the reasons that bee keepers are so challenged by Varroa mite is that there hasn't been an investment in developing new products for managing mites in bee hives.  Growers need tools to manage plant pests in the context of a well-planned IPM program ~ and without access to high quality tools, there is the potential for increased use and reliance of inferior tools.

I'm instead annoyed that the Bayer Bee Care Tour has rented facilities at major universities (Ohio State, Univ. of Illinois, Iowa State, University of Nebraska, University of Minnesota . . . and now, Oregon State University), and marketed it in a way that suggests that OSU is a collaborator on the tour.  Although completely within their right (these facilities are available for any group to rent and use), I worry that their Bee Tour announcement promotes the false impression that these stops have been planned with and endorsed by the Universities.  When in actuality, the entomologists I've talked to at Oregon State were largely caught by surprise by this upcoming Bayer Bee Tour stop, and were only called after the fact by Bayer to see if they would participate in a panel discussion (most, if not all, have said 'no').

It seems that the more open and inclusive approach, if the goal is to align Bayer's bee protection efforts with what is going on at Land Grant Universities, would be to invite Oregon State researchers to the table from the beginning ~ rather than trying to tack folks on as an afterthought.