Garden Detective: Nassau Cooperative Extension's rocky path to funding

Master gardeners busy planting at the Cornell Cooperative Master gardeners busy planting at the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Nassau County's East Meadow Farm. Photo Credit: Peter Franzoni, 2013

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Jessica Damiano Jessica Damiano, Newsday columnist

Jessica Damiano is a master gardener and journalist with more than 20 years experience in radio, television, print ...

I've been a journalist for more than 25 years, Newsday's garden columnist for more than seven and a master gardener for about six. I owe the latter notch on my belt to the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Nassau County, which accepted me into its program in 2007 and then vigorously educated me -- not in the ways of pretty flowers and landscape design, but in entomology (the study of insects, some with piercing, sucking mouthparts!), plant disease epidemiology, botanical Latin and -- the bane of my existence in those days -- fertilizer math.

But due to steep and continued budget cuts since 1999, the Extension office's own existence is now in danger.

The Master Gardener program's roots date back to the presidency of Abraham Lincoln, who in 1862 signed the Morrill Land-Grant College Act. For every senator and representative each state had, the act granted the state 30,000 acres of public land. Proceeds from the sale of that land were to be invested in a perpetual endowment that would support the creation of colleges in each state that would, in turn, educate people in agriculture and mechanical arts. We were, after all, an agricultural country in those days.

Over the years, the 42 land-grant colleges have faithfully honored their obligations, teaching farmers about marketing, cooperatives and beneficial practices such as succession planting, and teaching farm women about proper nutrition, canning and preserving, sewing and furniture refinishing. These services helped many families survive the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Birth of modern program

In 1972, the Washington state system launched a program to train local volunteers to answer questions from home gardeners, free of charge. The idea caught on and spread across the country, and the Master Gardener program was born. Today, the land-grant colleges, which are still honoring their end of the bargain, have county extension services that "extend," or reach out, into their communities, and continue to build upon the services that began during the Civil War. Master gardeners test and analyze home gardeners' soil, answer their questions over the phone and give community lectures about plant diseases, integrated pest management and gardening methods. In addition, the 4-H Youth Development program runs summer camps and enrichment programs that focus on character building and life skills for youths, and the Family and Consumer Sciences branch still teaches community members about nutrition, child-care and food preparation.

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New York's land-grant college is Cornell University in Ithaca. It has county extension offices all over the state. As you might expect, the university has highly regarded animal sciences, agricultural and plant sciences programs. It also created and maintains Cornell Plantations and the F.R. Newman Arboretum on its campus. Both are open to the public, free of charge. Last month, I headed to Cornell to retrieve my daughter Julia from the three-week sustainable animal husbandry program there. Naturally, I paid a visit to the mother ship.

A jaunt to Cornell Plantations

Irene Lekstutis, landscape designer at Cornell Plantations and a Valley Stream native, spent the better part of her morning showing me around the 14 botanical collections she has overseen for the past 12 years. There are gardens devoted to wildflowers, poisonous plants, vegetables, tea plants, rhododendrons, ground covers and herbs, among others. My favorite, The Robison York State Herb Garden, comprises 17 themed beds that feature more than 500 varieties of herbs. There's also a unique Bioswale garden, which was designed to clean and slow the flow of stormwater runoff from the parking lot. Here, a garden landscape composed of strong-rooted hardy plants and grasses is impeccably maintained by staff members, who were busy mulching on the morning of my arrival.

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The plants used in this space are mostly native and include switch grass (Panicum virgatum), sneezeweed (Helenium), Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium), American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana) and winterberry (Ilex verticillata). And the best part for us gardeners is that every plant is labeled with its common and botanical name. Tags staked into the soil under herb plants also note their intended uses.

Botanical gardens, in general, are spaces dedicated to displaying collections of plants. They are nicely arranged, and visitors typically view the beds up close and gravitate toward the individual plants that comprise the whole. In our own gardens, however, the goal usually is to showcase, well, the garden. We aim for curb appeal, and it's the overall aesthetic that draws us in.

At Cornell Plantations, the whole is at least as good as the sum of its parts, and Lekstutis and her staff can be credited with most of the curb appeal there, with the remainder of the honor going to the expansive space allocated to the Plantations, which allow for adequate distance viewing. In all, there are 100 acres in the arboretum, 3,400 acres of natural areas that include bogs and meadows, and 35 acres of botanical gardens. On approach, one can appreciate the gentle curves of the garden beds, the strategic transitions of color and texture, and the colorful vistas framed by curved tree branches. In short, these gardens are beautiful.

Extension imperiled on LI

Back home on Long Island, President Lincoln's vision is imperiled. The Cornell Cooperative Extension of Nassau County, which runs a diagnostic clinic and display gardens at East Meadow Farm and has offices in Jericho, has seen county funding cut by nearly 97 percent since 1999, when Nassau provided $1.3 million. In 2005, the funding was down to $430,000, and in 2013 it's $45,000. The Extension is seeking a return to 2005 levels.

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"Without county funding, Extension stands to lose much, if not all, of its state matching funds," said Laura Hunsberger, the Extension's executive director, adding that full-time staff has been cut by more than 50 percent over the past three years.

Nassau County Extension employs roughly 125 people. About 100 of those are seasonal part-timers at the 4H camp in Riverhead, which is more or less self-sufficient, according to Hunsberger. There are only 13 full-time employees at the Cornell Cooperative Extension, and Hunsberger credits the 260 master gardener volunteers with doing "all of the legwork" at the farm and in the community, work she estimates is worth $140,000 annually.

Having done some volunteer work for the Extension myself, I can attest that it's a bare-bones operation consistent with its nonprofit status: Employees work on standard-issue, utilitarian metal desks; master gardeners manning the phone help line look things up in books, not on computers; and there are no cushy perks. Hunsberger said the organization just wants to continue to operate the East Meadow Farm and offer the community services it's been providing since 1914.

To help contain costs, the extension has had 16 closures this summer, with unpaid furloughs for employees not on the federal payroll. Without restored county funding, Hunsberger believes more layoffs will occur, followed by permanent facility closures, with East Meadow Farm likely the first to go.

At the Aug. 5 meeting of the Nassau County Legislature, Extension representatives expressed opposition to the absence of annual budget line-item funding, which would give the Extension leverage for applying for grants at the state and federal levels. Since then, Hunsberger said, the Extension has been "working to educate the legislature about the benefits of our programming and impacts."

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A dedicated line-item allocation in the county budget would secure the necessary funding to continue extension operations, she said, adding, "as the organization approaches its 100th year, it is almost certainly its last without appropriate budget funding by the county."

Norma Gonsalves, presiding officer of the Nassau County Legislature, who secured the initial funding for the farm and championed the process to grant Cornell use of the property, said "there will be a line in the budget," but conceded, "it won't be in the amount they are looking for."

Gonsalves noted that she has "made recommendations with the parks commissioner and requested an additional $30,000 in county funding on behalf of the Extension" in the next budget. That brings the total amount allocated to $105,000. She acknowledged the Extension needs more, but said "it's a start," and added that there is the potential for more funds to be allocated in the future.

For now, she said, "We are continuing that effort. The farm is extremely important to me."

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IF YOU GO

Cornell Plantations, 1 Plantations Rd., Ithaca

Hours: Open every day from dawn until dusk, year-round

Admission: Free

Contact: 607-255-2400. Call ahead for scheduled group tours; "drop-in" tours are also available.

East Meadow Farm, 832 Merrick Ave., East Meadow

Hours: Grounds and display gardens open daily from dawn until dusk, year round; Walk-in diagnostic clinic open Tuesdays through Thursdays, and Saturdays, from 10 a.m.- 1 p.m. (also Thursday evenings from 4 p.m.-7 p.m.)

Admission: Free

Contact: 516-565-5265 (Dial extension 7 for the garden help line, which has the same hours as the walk-in clinic.)

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