One of the greatest challenges for consumer horticulture specialists and extension agents is communicating effectively with their broad audiences. Even when narrowed to home and community food gardening, the target audience is immense. In 2008, 31% of all U.S. households, an estimated 36 million households, participated in food gardening (National Gardening Association, 2009) and this number increases annually (Butterfield, 2013). Moreover, the demographics of this group encompass a broad cross section of the U.S. population and include all ages, education levels, income levels, martial statuses, household sizes, genders, and regional locations.
Consumer horticulture extension specialists and agents are asked to address many issues. Gardeners have unique interests in plant material and gardening techniques, as well as varying levels of interest in organic, sustainable, and traditional practices. In addition, today’s gardeners and scientists are often interested in ecological services that gardens may provide. These services can include conserving biodiversity, protecting water resources, improving microclimate, and sequestering carbon (Lovell and Taylor, 2013). Some expectations fall well outside the typical purview of horticulture. As Lovell and Taylor (2013) noted, community gardens may play an important role in helping participants organize, serving as sites for political mobilization and resistance to marginalization.
Perhaps the most successful and well-known outreach initiative in consumer horticulture is the EMG volunteer program. Initiated in 1972, the program trains EMG volunteers to provide research-based gardening information to the public (Meyer, 2007). The program has spread to all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and 4 Canadian provinces (National Master Gardener Committee, 2013). According to the last Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service (2009) report, there were ≈95,000 active volunteers in the United States and Canada. Instructors are generally Cooperative Extension agents or specialists at land-grant universities. The contribution of EMG volunteers to extension programs is well documented (Martin, 2009).
Communication issues within the EMG program can be daunting. Often a single coordinator oversees the program statewide, with county or regional agents (or coordinators) overseeing volunteers on a local scale. Statewide EMG programs can have thousands of participants interacting with the public who request services and information about the program.
Extension specialists, agents, and volunteers compete to be heard by their clients and prospective clients over commercial and other entities. Internet searches yield a plethora of information from national chain stores, local stores, nurseries, blogs, etc. Eccentric information and sales pitches are as readily available as research-based information. Clientele may be confused by conflicting information.
The use of social media has proven effective for many communicators, but can be challenging for extension professionals. Extension professionals rarely have the time, experience, or professional support to pull together thoughtful social media campaigns and their “product” is complex, research-based gardening information that changes seasonally and with external events (e.g., weather patterns, pest outbreaks, and trends).
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