CCE Gardeners resign amid leadership concerns

Master Gardeners Heather Brenner, Joyce Tomaselli and Philomena Kiernan worked the 30th annual Master Gardener plant sale in Millbrook on May 19 and 20, 2023.

Judith O’Hara Balfe

CCE Gardeners resign amid leadership concerns

MILLBROOK — The Dutchess County Master Gardener Program at the Cornell Cooperative Extension Ductchess County (CCEDC) experienced a mass resignation of its volunteers in late March.

This departure comprises at least half of the program’s 74 members, some of whom have been in the program for decades.

The Master Gardener Volunteer Program is a national initiative of Cornell University: trained volunteers collaborate with county Cooperative Extension offices to provide research-based guidance to home gardeners and youth.

Originating in Washington state in 1972, Dutchess County pioneered New York State’s involvement in 1975. Today, Master Gardener programs exist in 46 states, with over 23,000 participants nationwide, including more than 1,100 in New York State alone.

The primary grievances of the resigned volunteers from Dutchess County revolve around perceived poor management practices by the program’s new directors. Allegations include the creation of a hostile work environment, arbitrary dismissals and suspensions of Master Gardeners, and a lack of transparency regarding changes to volunteer commitments.

“There is something called a conflict resolution policy at the extension, and they would never let us utilize it to hear why we were upset, what we thought we could do about it, and how we could fix things and so forth. They just wouldn’t sit down with us,” said a master gardener who prefers to remain anonymous. She went on to say, “They never thought about the repercussions. Period. And quite honestly, they don’t seem to care.” This sentiment is echoed by others who feel that the current management team has failed to address their concerns and engage in meaningful dialogue.

The imposition of new rules and requirements without adequate explanation has contributed to the discontent among volunteers. Recent developments, such as what the gardeners describe as restrictive volunteer forms and disrespectful language, have also raised concerns among volunteers.

The departure of these longtime volunteers represents a significant loss for the Dutchess County Master Gardener Program and the community it serves.

Said Chris Ferrero, Master Gardener and one of the founders of the Master Gardener Speaker’s Bureau, “The Master Gardeners need to be brought back if we are going to serve the community. If we can’t, why is the county paying the extension for this service?”

Moving forward, there is a collective hope among former volunteers for a reversal of the program’s current trajectory which they perceive to be marked by inflexible and disrespectful management practices. The volunteers have voiced their concerns in an open letter about the future direction of the program and its ability to effectively serve the community.

Asked for comment, CCEDC Director Mary Lou Carolan acknowledged that a number of volunteers had left the program. She said that the movement among the Master Gardeners had started last summer, following the implementation of revised policy guidelines from Cornell’s horticulture program.

The revised guidelines required Master Gardeners to spend more hours training, so that those with the Master Gardener title would be more educated in all aspects of plant management, from propagation to soil science on down, said Carolan — the idea being that the Gardeners can then pass that information on to the public.

She said that the Master Gardeners who left had objected to new requirements of time spent in the labs and greenhouses, learning, for example, how to manage cuttings and propagate plants.

The Master Gardeners also objected to requirements to staff the CCEDC horticulture hotline, which people call with questions about gardening, Carolan said. This also required training, such as how to research the answers to questions that the volunteer might not know off the top of their heads.

The changes coincided with changes in leadership and staffing, said Carolan.

“With new leadership comes new direction, new vision,” she said. “I think they didn’t want anything to change.”

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