Extension Master Gardener Program rises to challenge during pandemic

Hauling weeds at the Portland-area demonstration garden.

Oregon's Master Gardener Program is one of the oldest in the country, dating to 1976. But 2020 was a year unlike any other for Oregon State University Extension Service Master Gardener faculty, staff and volunteers.

What began normally, with great plans for broadening its outreach and incorporating more dynamic activities into its classes, changed in an instant in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Classes, conferences, and plant sales were cancelled. Gardens that would normally be lovingly cared for by Master Gardeners were not planted, or watered or weeded for months.

At the same time that the Master Gardener Program was learning to navigate this new environment, more people than ever were turning to Master Gardeners for help. There was 2,806% increase in the number of people signing up for online gardening courses, a 125% increase in the number of people who "liked" the Master gardener page on Facebook and a 67% increase in the number of people submitting gardening questions on OSU’s Ask an Expert Service.

Oregon’s active corps of nearly 3,000 Master Gardener volunteers in 27 counties were able to be of direct service to more than 34,000 Oregonians while under COVID-related restrictions. in addition to their educational work, Master Gardeners donated an estimated 21 tons of fresh produce, harvested from Master Gardener-managed community and demonstration gardens, to local food banks and food pantries. 

Lane County Master Gardeners donated 2,200 vegetable plant starts to organizations dedicated to providing food to others. The Central Gorge Master Gardeners created a virtual platform that enabled Master Gardeners to receive and respond to gardening questions from home. Benton County Master Gardeners took the popular "Seed to Supper" beginning gardening classes online. Klamath County Master Gardeners hosted at-home garden trivia events. 

When the pandemic disrupted planned programming, Master Gardener faculty, staff, and volunteers moved instructional activities online. Effective use of Zoom and the online Master Gardener short courses enabled 73% of new Master Gardener trainees to complete their coursework. Because many of Oregon’s Master Gardener programs scheduled class time that exceeded the national minimum for the initial year of training coursework (40 hours), several county programs were able to cancel select classes, yet still deliver a training program that met national Extension Master Gardener standards. In total, only 14% of scheduled classes were canceled, and only three county programs were unable to complete annual Master Gardener trainings in 2020.

In addition to all of these accomplishments, the Master Gardener Program committed itself in 2020 to diversity, equity and inclusion – to fulfill its mission of serving all Oregonians. Gail Langellotto, statewide Master gardener program coordinator, expressed this goal in the June 2020 Master Gardener newsletter.

"Even if you carry concern that a focus on racial justice and equity has not worked, or will not work within our program ~ this is not the time to stop," Langellotto wrote, "This is exactly the time we need to step up our game, listen, learn, and grow our work to be more equitable and inclusive of our many communities, particularly our communities of color. We look forward to growing together, and to working towards racial justice and equity in the Master Gardener Program."

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