Younger Generation Bringing New Energy to UF/IFAS Master Gardeners as Program Celebrates 40 Years in Florida
ORLANDO, Fla. – Angie Dixon, 38, was working long hours as a project manager, but would spend weekends trolling plant shows and local community gardens. Though she loved everything about plants, she knew nothing about gardening.
“I figured gardening would be a cool activity to do with my 5-year-old son,” said Dixon, of Orlando. “So, I bought a bunch of plants and wasn’t even sure what to do with them.”
Dixon had heard of the Master Gardener program, hosted by the UF/IFAS Extension Orange County office. “I knew it would mostly be retirees and older people, and I wasn’t sure if me and my purple hair would fit in,” she said. “But it has been an incredible experience. I am so glad I enrolled.”
According to Amy Vu, Master Gardener coordinator for UF/IFAS Extension Orange County, the average age of participants has been retirees in their 60s and 70s. Currently, her youngest master gardener is 26 and the oldest is 91.
Younger residents are flocking to the program, now celebrating 40 years in Florida. “Historically, we don’t get people until they retire,” Vu said. “But now we see an increase in people still working full time who work out schedules with their bosses and rearrange their schedules to participate in the program.”
The Master Gardener program requires participation in a 50-hour training course sponsored by the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences and local Extension offices, said Wendy Wilber, state Master Gardener coordinator. After successfully completing the course, which can take up to six months, Master Gardeners are required to complete 75 volunteer hours in their first year of certification and 35 hours each subsequent year to maintain certification, she said.
Vu cites new recruiting efforts that target a younger audience. “We are going to public events that have a younger demographic, and reaching out to millennials to let them know that they can play an integral role in helping their communities,” she said.
While most Master Gardeners are transplants from up North, younger participants are usually born and raised in Florida. “The younger ones that we get now in the program are usually from Florida, and they are very tied to their communities,” Vu said. “They want to find ways to help the overall environment, but they really want to make a difference closer to home.”
Gabriel Almonte, of Casselberrry, said he joined Master Gardeners because he wanted to make a difference in his community. Almonte, 25, was one of the youngest in his Master Gardener’s class. “I was happy to see so many retirees willing to use their time to give back and educate others about agriculture,” he said. “Most people don’t have the time to take classes and volunteer, too.”
Eager to get his hands dirty, Almonte learned how to grow a garden, properly care for plants and maintain a home landscape. Currently, he helps grow fruits and vegetables at a community garden in St. Cloud, and donates the produce to the local food pantry. He hopes to get the younger generation as excited as he is about urban agriculture.
“I love working with Eagle Scouts in the community garden because they get to see the results of their hard work, and they get to see how their gardening helps other residents who need the food,” Almonte said. “Master Gardeners allows me to do something that I can be proud of.”
Many of the younger newcomers to the Master Gardeners program want to know where their food comes from, said Brooke Moffis, Master Gardener program coordinator for UF/IFAS Extension Lake County. And, they want the opportunity to teach youth about food systems, she said.
“The younger Master Gardeners are concerned about not getting the optimum nutrition and health of their food. They want to know which pesticides and fertilizers are being applied,” Moffis said. “But whatever their reasons for joining the program, we are excited to have them.”
Click here for more information on the UF/IFAS Master Gardener program, or visit http://gardeningsolutions.ifas.ufl.edu/mastergardener/.
The mission of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences is to develop knowledge relevant to agricultural, human and natural resources and to make that knowledge available to sustain and enhance the quality of human life. With more than a dozen research facilities, 67 county Extension offices, and award-winning students and faculty in the UF College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, UF/IFAS works to bring science-based solutions to the state’s agricultural and natural resources industries, and all Florida residents. Visit the UF/IFAS web site at ifas.ufl.edu and follow us on social media at @UF_IFAS.