The EMG volunteer program is one of the most widely recognized programs of extension (Meyer, 2007). It was designed specifically to address the demands of CH, defined as the cultivation, use, and enjoyment of plants, gardens, landscapes, and related horticultural items to the benefit of individuals, communities, and the environment (NICH, 2018). In the United States, it is extension that conducts the training and management of these volunteers, the recommendations provided, and educational programs delivered by EMG volunteers are rooted in university research.
The EMG program proved to be such a vital extension of services for Washington State University that it was rapidly implemented in all 50 states (Allen et al., 2012). Presently, 49 EMG programs are recognized in the United States (Extension Master Gardener National Committee, 2016c). More than 90,000 EMG volunteers reported service hours in 2016, reaching a reported 5.8 million clientele (Extension Master Gardener National Committee, 2017).
Extension Master Gardener programs were originally targeted for development in metro areas to help extension to meet the growing demands for CH information in an increasingly urbanized environment (Boyer et al., 2002). Since their inception, EMG volunteer programs have spread out into suburban and rural areas. Dorn et al. (2018) reported that 80.5% of EMG supported urban EMG programs, whereas 17.2% supported suburban programs and 2.1% supported rural EMG programs.
Early reports of EMG projects indicate that programmatic emphasis was on providing a response to an individual’s inquiry at EMG clinics at major shopping centers, libraries, public gardening events, and county fairs (Warner, 1978). Responding to individual inquiry is a nonformal means of educating the public and, by default, became the primary ERT for EMG volunteers—in other words, how EMG volunteers responded to public request for CH information. Over time, additional ERTs were developed, including both nonformal (organized learning with or without a formal curriculum, taught by a qualified teacher or leader, that results in enrichment and increase in skills and capacities) and informal (nonorganized learning without a formal curriculum, no credits earned, taught by someone with experience) methods of educating (Eaton, 2018). Multiple horticultural issues were targeted, and volunteer service activities abounded (Fig. 1). Multiple volunteer service activities can be conducted simultaneously, supporting one or more ERTs that address one or more issues, as shown in Figs. 2 and 3. These ERTs support Boyle’s (1981) three types of educational programming, including institutional (developing basic abilities and skills), informational (dissemination of information), and developmental (problem-specific strategies). Programming may ultimately be supported by numerous volunteer service activities to achieve the desired goals and objectives (Seevers et al., 2007).
In a 1994 Virginia study (Relf and McDaniel, 1994), EMG volunteers were asked to prioritize program outreach and to choose from a list of six ERTs. Providing horticultural information to others topped the list of EMG volunteer priorities, followed by changed (improved) behavior; teaching youth about nature, the environment, and gardening; teaching through demonstration sites; protecting the heritage of historic and public gardens; and enhancing the quality of life for special populations. The same study noticed an evolution in EMG volunteer roles in the first 25 years of the program’s history; early EMG volunteers were primarily “volunteers with gardening answers.” This note of change was echoed by Meyer (2007), who observed that EMGs now fill “a much larger role than what was envisioned when the program started in 1972.”
McAleer (2005) took a snapshot of EMG service projects preferred by state coordinators in the late 1990s. This was an open response question, and replies were grouped into 10 project types that include some ERTs and volunteer service activities. Projects addressing the youth audience topped the list, followed by “one-on-one advice to general public.” These two preferences rose to the top of a list that included established EMG activities involving demonstration gardens, environmental education, community gardens, classes, workshops, speaking engagements, and other topics. These results provided insight into historic EMG program priorities.
As early as 1992, observations indicated that EMG programs were unique with “different emphases and objectives” from county to county and state to state (Stouse and Marr, 1992). Meyer (2007) noted that “MG and extension programs are most effective when the projects meet community needs.” This is consistent with effective program planning that uses needs assessment and priorities to guide the design and implementation of outreach efforts (Seevers et al., 2007). Although local needs guide EMG program outreach at the county and state levels, the overall EMG program impact is not presently guided by vision at the national level.
Before 2015, there were no national standards for EMG volunteer programs, and at this time, there is no official work plan or prioritization of educational programming (Kirsch and VanDerZanden, 2002; Langellotto et al., 2015). Individual program leaders essentially make their own choices. There are differences of opinion about the appropriateness of hands-on gardening activities as an ERT. What counts for volunteer service varies from county to county within a state and from state to state (Meyer, 2007; Vines et al., 2016). This causes concern for the EMG program image as lack of consistency in the volunteer experience region to region affects the impression of the communities and individuals using the services of EMG volunteers (Allen et al., 2012).
In 2016, a national mission to distinguish and focus on the efforts of EMG programs from other volunteer groups across the country was adopted by the EMG National Committee (EMGNC), a group providing voluntary national leadership to facilitate cooperation, communication, and collaboration among EMG programs nationwide (Extension Master Gardener National Committee, 2016b; Langellotto et al., 2015). This milestone effort established that the mission of EMG programs is to “educate people, engaging them in learning to use unbiased, research-based horticulture and gardening practices through a network of trained volunteers directed and supported by LGU faculty and staff” (Langellotto et al., 2015). This mission, indeed, aligns with the land grant mission of extension. In fact, according to the dean of the University of Minnesota’s College of Agriculture, one of the key missions of the EMG program is to extend the research and resources of the university farther than the university would otherwise be able to (Allen et al., 2012). The mission of the EMG program could be strengthened by articulating a national strategic plan for outreach, but it is unknown how well such a plan would be received or if it could be effectively implemented.
In the spirit of enhancing cooperation, communication, and collaboration, the EMGNC established six extension programmatic regions in the United States. The regions include Northeast (West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, Connecticut, New York, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine, and Rhode Island); North Central (North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, and Indiana); Northwest (Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Alaska, and Hawaii); Southwest (California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico); South Central (Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Kentucky, and Tennessee); and Southeast (Alabama, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia). A representative from each region is a member of the national committee (Extension Master Gardener National Committee, 2016a). Dorn et al. (2018) found significant differences in volunteer demographics on a regional basis, including volunteer age, years of active service, and service reported in 2015. Similarities and differences in regional EMG ERTs, if any, are unknown.
Dorn et al. (2018) noted demographic differences among EMG volunteers in different generations. EMG coordinators and volunteers represent four generations, including traditionalist (born between 1925 and 1942), baby boomer (born between 1943 and 1960), Gen X (born between 1961 and 1981), and Gen Y (born between 1982 and 2000). These cohorts (or generations) have common exposure to social and intellectual conditions, or events, that form the generation’s consciousness (Parry and Urwin, 2011; Rotolo and Wilson, 2004; Strauss and Howe, 1991; Zemke et al., 2000). It is unknown if there are generational differences in importance of ERTs.
The objective of this article was to determine whether state and local program management and volunteers are on the same page with regard to the importance of EMG program ERTs. The effects of region, generation of the respondent, and host county population density on the importance of ERTs were also explored. We will discuss how these results compare with historical program accounts and the implications of these results for addressing federal programming priorities for horticulture.
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