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Original Master Gardeners Program Turns 35

Some 250 Master Gardener volunteers from across Washington state will gather at Fort Warden State Park near Port Townsend, Wash. June 12 to 14 to hone their skills at their annual leadership conference, and to celebrate the 35th anniversary of the world’s first Master Gardeners program.

There has never been a better time for the state’s Master Gardener volunteers to have a positive impact on their communities, according to Bill Havens, president of the Master Gardeners Foundation of Washington State.

“Now is the time we can have a major beneficial impact as people cope with the problems of high fuel and food prices, and environmental concerns,” he said. “People are wanting more locally grown food, food banks have an increasing need for more fresh local produce, and we’re in a place where we can make a real difference.”

The program was born in the early 1970’s when Washington state was in a major recession after 60,000 aerospace workers were laid off in the Puget Sound area, and the Arab oil embargo imposed on the United States triggered fuel shortages and increasing food prices. At the same time many young people around the nation were emerging from the sixties with an interest in “getting back to the earth.”

“WSU Extension offices especially in King, Pierce and Spokane counties were swamped by requests for assistance and information about gardening, ”said Tonie Fitzgerald, Washington State University Extension Master Gardener state program leader.

To meet the demand a pair of WSU Extension agents serving King and Pierce counties hit on the idea of providing in-depth science-based training in horticulture and related topics to interested volunteers in trade for a commitment of at least 50 hours of volunteer service to their communities.

Working with WSU scientists and educators a training curriculum was developed. In 1973 a class of about 200 volunteers completed the first training to become certified Master Gardeners, and the program was born.

“From that beginning Master Gardener programs have spread to every state in the nation and to a number of other countries,” Havens said. “We are having an impact throughout the world.”

“The Master Gardeners Foundation is working closely with WSU to expand programs and reinvigorate our efforts,” Havens said. “It’s generating a renewed enthusiasm.”

Today there are nearly 4,000 trained Master Gardeners in the state, serving more than 300,000 people annually and providing literally millions of dollars worth of volunteer time and services to their communities.

Fitzgerald added that the approach of offering skilled training in trade for a commitment of community volunteering has been a model for a variety of other university extension programs such as Master Livestock Advisors, Master Composters, Master Clothing and Textile Advisors, and the WSU Beach Watchers program.

“It’s a great model for extending the knowledge and the resources of the university out to our communities,” she said.

Highlights of the Master Gardener leadership conference include welcoming remarks and a keynote address at 8:30 am on Friday, June 13, by WSU Associate Vice President and Dean of Extension Linda Kirk Fox,. An awards banquet will be held Friday evening at which Fox will honor 12 of the program’s founders, including three members of the original Master Gardeners class who are still active volunteers.

“We’re looking forward to it being a good 35th birthday celebration,” Havens said.

For more information about the WSU Master Gardeners program and the leadership conference visit http://mastergardeners.com/.

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Media Contacts

Tonie Fitzgerald, WSU Master Gardener state program leader, 509-358-7879
Bill Havens, President, 253-535-1954