Ministry of Controversy

When Master Gardeners become Whistleblowers

Chairman Gray and Councilmembers, thank you for focusing some much-needed attention on the University of the District of Columbia, which administers the Cooperative Extension Service for the city. That’s the USDA program for educating citizens about such increasingly-important subjects as nutrition and environmentally responsible landscaping practices and whose administration of the Master Gardeners program I’m writing to express concerns about. I graduated from that program in 2006 and learned to my distress that not only aren’t program assets directed toward the mission, but now that Master Gardener graduates are trying to fulfill the mission, UDC employees are – to our amazement – fighting to keep us and other committed volunteers from accomplishing anything at all.

What Extension Agents and Master Gardener programs are like nationally

Across the U.S. and in all the counties adjacent to D.C., Master Gardener programs train volunteers to provide horticultural education in their communities, then direct them into local Master Gardener organizations to create and run such projects as: horticultural hotlines, community gardens, demonstration gardens, community greening, and the teaching of such environmentally responsible practices as composting, growing food organically and watershed-safe lawn care. A professional horticulturist serves as Cooperative Extension Agent, to advise the Master Gardeners and the public on best practices, disease diagnosis, and the like.

UDC’s Master Gardener program

In 2002, after a period in which these services had been discontinued, UDC hired a new Extension Agent and Master Gardener Coordinator, but chose someone whose sole qualification in horticulture was working as a check-out clerk at two local gardening stores – Sandy Farber. She reinstituted a yearly training program for about 35 people, but never created a Master Gardener organization to fulfill the mission or any Master Gardener-initiated and directed programs. Instead, she directs the graduates’ required 50 hours of "community service" toward laboring in federal and private gardens around town, primarily the gardens of the horticulturists who assist her in the training. (Because she’s not qualified to conduct training herself, she relies on friends to do it and rewards them with our free labor in their gardens. In fact, Ms. Farber told me on several occasions not to "encourage any new projects" because it would dilute the free help that her trainers receive.)

So, monies have been spent but there are no demonstration gardens, no composting projects, no new community gardens, no teaching of sustainable gardening or control of invasive species – NOTHING. So eager volunteers looking to get involved go to nearby jurisdictions, all of whom have active Master Gardener programs and websites that reflect them. (There’s not even a mention of the program on UDC’s site.)

Why the difference?

We Master Gardeners once asked Ms. Farber why DC doesn’t have a Master Gardener organization or any Master Gardener projects and she responded, "You can’t expect D.C. to have the kind of program they have in the rest of the country," a response we neither understood nor agreed with. This disturbing response points to the possibility that Ms. Farber and her supervisors might be out of step politically with the city. (Another example was Ms. Farber scolding one of us for suggesting that people attend the DC Green Festival, which she said was "too liberal." Imagine our surprise when we attended and saw the large, active contingent from the D.C. government at the event. I also had to wonder about the role of right-wing ideology at play here when David Jefferson, Ms. Farber’s immediate supervisor, gave me a small stipend to write gardening fact sheets for the public and told me specifically NOT to promote an environmental message or agenda.)

Master Gardeners Organize

Realizing the unmet needs in the city, several Master Gardener graduates began organizing in the summer of 2006 to create an organization that could then fulfill our mission. While initially Ms. Farber ignored our work completely, in time she realized that her ignorance of our activities was embarrassing her, so she took draconian measures to rein us in. In an astounding show of verbal abuse and bullying, she castigated us and ordered us not to contact anyone – by email, telephone or in person – without her permission. She also forbade our partnering with such highly esteemed environmental groups as Casey Trees, whom she disparaged at length.

UDC launches campaign against its Master Gardeners

In response to Ms. Farber’s crackdown, we organized independently from UDC as the DC Urban Gardeners, hoping to cooperate with UDC as equal partners and have the freedom to accomplish things. In response, Ms.Farber initiated a public smear campaign against us and threatened people who cooperate with us with retaliation, including the withholding of Master Gardener certification for graduates who cooperate with us and refusing to recommend funding for the school garden project of another graduate, to cite just two examples. I’ve provided Chairman Gray with specific examples of her campaign to thwart our works in an email dated 10/12/07.

Our attempts at redress and UDC’s response – a PR campaign

In the winter and spring of 2007 DC Urban Gardener president Ed Bruske and I both sent several e-mails to UDC’s Dean for Community Outreach, Gloria Wyche-Moore, asking her to call off Ms. Farber’s campaign against us and inject some civility and professionalism into the situation. Although we were promised a response, we never got one. Instead, UDC’s response to our complaints and cries for help has been to attempt to get credit for its imaginary accomplishments. What began as a successful campaign by Ms. Farber to win the coveted and financially rewarding Cafritz Award in 2006 has been followed by several glowing profiles about herself in the local press, which mirror the claims made in her application for the prize.

Given our intimate knowledge of D.C.’s Master Gardener program or more accurately, the lack thereof, we were all surprised when Ms. Farber announced to us that we have an "award-winning program" and asked to see the 6-page application she’d submitted for the prize. Our request was rejected, so we can only quote from the Cafritz Foundation press release, which claims that "Over 8,000 volunteer hours have been performed under her direction, which has saved the District of Columbia $130,000 in labor costs." This can’t possibly be true, since all those 8,000 hours would have to have been performed at D.C. schools and recreation departments (not to mention performing duties otherwise performed by employees). To the contrary, we estimate that well over 90 percent of our volunteer hours were performed at federal facilities (National Arboretum and U.S. Botanic Gardens) and private gardens (Hillwood Museum and Gardens, Tudor Place, and the British Embassy). That’s just one claim; we trust that the full 6-page application would yield more fictitious accomplishments. Given Ms. Farber’s successes in the public relations arena, we shouldn’t be surprised that her superiors refuse to even speak with us – we insiders have very different story to tell.

What’s at stake

As volunteers, we’d rather be teaching D.C. residents about composting or helping to green public spaces, assisting community gardeners, and so on. None of us have anything to gain personally from speaking up about these problems, but we believe that city residents have a lot to gain from a change in personnel at the Cooperative Extension Service, starting with a dean for Community Outreach who actually supports the mission of the program and is responsive to the public. DC’s Extension Agent should be qualified to give expert opinions, and the Master Gardener coordinator should be someone who can work cooperatively with adult volunteers, other city agencies, and local environmental organizations, rather than fight turf wars and compile enemies lists. Please correct this situation because as constituted, it’s a classic and sad example of government waste, fraud and abuse.

Susan Harris, Garden Writer and Teacher, Takoma Park, MD, susan@sustainable-gardening.com.
Yes, I’m a DC Master Gardener who lives in Maryland. And one of the many changes I’d urge is for DC’s Master Gardener program to give preference to DC residents – which all other local jurisdictions do. I have, however, worked for 36 years in the District of Columbia while living either in or just outside the city, and I want to help D.C.’s greening efforts catch up with those of so many other major American cities.

For more information

Copies of previous correspondence regarding this matter are available on request. And to learn more about our projects, visit www.dc-urban-gardeners.com.  My biographical info is here.

Posted by on November 29, 2007 at 5:59 pm, in the category Ministry of Controversy.
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19 Responses to “When Master Gardeners become Whistleblowers”

  1. Amy Stewart says:

    Wow! What a crazy deal. I guess part of what allows this kind of thing to happen is that DC is off on its own as a district, whereas other Master Gardener coordinators would be part of a state-wide program (like UC Davis sort of oversees the California master garden programs around the state, holds a state conference, etc.)

  2. susan harris says:

    Amy, exactly right. So there’s no supervision by anyone at any level.

  3. How very odd and what a pain. Good luck!

  4. Kim says:

    Wow… what a MESS. Good for you for speaking up, Susan–I wish you the best of luck!

  5. Brooke says:

    Sounds like politics as usual in DC, no wonder the government never gets anything accomplished. This lady sounds like she is so busy trying to smear you guys, that you can’t even accomplish the good deeds that you are trying to accomplish. And it sounds like they are definately coming from an anti-environmental viewpoint. That is so ass-backwards. Don’t they realize that as gardeners we are hands-on stewards of the earth?

  6. Aiyana says:

    It sounds like this woman should start a career in politics. Sad to say, I don’t think MG programs in general are viewed as important, from what I’ve seen locally. The offices are shabby, and it takes years to replace or add staff, all blamed on lack of funding. At least we have a horticulturist ag extension agent, but other appointments, when they get around to it, are based on some unusual criteria in my view.

  7. Jenn says:

    I’m an MG in the gulf coast and while I wasn’t overwhelmed with our program, I have realized over time that we’re very fortunate in our hort agent and the rest of the staff — they are looking out for our community, but also allow us the autonomy to do interesting projects and expand our knowledge while helping the community.

    Susan — your situation is just so frustrating. But it sounds like so much of the government and what we often call “state worker mentality.” People are in jobs because they know someone, not what is needed for the job and do the minimum until someone shines a light on their incompetence (I say this as a state employee who has seen MANY examples of the bureaucracy of inaction).

  8. Good luck Susan. You guys make this woman look incompetent and uncaring because the great programs DC Urban Gardeners are doing did not come from her leadership! Keep us posted on this one.

  9. eliz says:

    Oh my god!

    Susan, does this fit in with your rose garden spraying story? Because in the public gardens in Buffalo administered by what’s left of our MG program, spraying is not allowed. If the MG program in DC is so screwed up, would that explain why spraying is going on?

  10. susan harris says:

    Eliz, that rose garden comes under the domain of the Smithsonian Institution – all federal. No DC involvement at all or any use of local volunteers.

  11. For some reason, the comment I posted yesterday didn’t show up. So here it is, in its entirety:

    Un-frigging-believable.

    Allow me to elaborate.

    Why does that … PERSON … have anything to do with gardening? Who did she have to $&#*, %((@, @&#* (4-character expletive of your choice) to get that political appointment? She clearly has no interest, nor talent, nor knowledge. Why not just pave everything over, or cover it with plastic turf, and call it a park? Then she can stake a claim for how much open space she’s sponsored. The trees that had to take down were, after all, interfering with one’s view of the sky.

    GARDENERS ROCK!

  12. Jeff Gillman says:

    I’ve taught Master Gardeners in Minnesota and across the country and am pretty familiar with how these organizations are run. I’ve heard some pretty crazy stuff (most of which I can’t verify). Misuse of funds and labor an such, but it all seems pretty minor compared to what you describe. I have never heard of anything like what you are talking about. Good luck. If you need any information on other programs to use as examples please let me know.

  13. susan harris says:

    Thanks for the offer, Jeff. I actually did a lot of research about MG programs across the country, especially in cities, and there’s no shortage of examples of good programs and good projects.

  14. Good for you for standing up to this abuse of power. People (even in these comments) throw up their hands and say, “Typical government snafu. That’s how it goes.” You should be proud that you are not one of them…that you decided to do something to stop it if you can. I know it cannot be easy to confront someone who is arrogant and abusive, so it’s extra wonderful that you are doing it.

    Let right prevail.

  15. Really messed up. It’s sad to see governments and non-profits act so dysfunctionally. I hope your letter has its intended effect.

    p. s. This is not to be pedantic at all but to increase the professionalism of your letter – “she took draconian measures to reign us in” should be “rein us in”.

  16. kate says:

    Susan
    i sympathize with your problem and it is not exactly a new one. Over my 12 yrs as a MG I have lived in 4 states and been president of 1 association. SOme are active other not; some have organized projects other do not. If the projects are not there – then make them. If there are no prresentations to the community – then talk to the local library and set some up. Sometimes the agent is a dud and the MGs have to take the lead.
    Good luck though,
    Kate

  17. Barry Prince says:

    I hate to say this, but great story (about a terrible situation).

    I hope you never mentioned in your battles anything about the rumor of dangerous humus being imported from Niger by a radical Organic-facist landscaper …they may swift-boat you for not even being there when the compost bins were turned!

  18. Sue says:

    After reading this I am so glad I did not sign up for the Master Gardener program in DC last year. That is a sad comment on what happens when people like this Farber woman run things. Why is all of DC such a mess??? Thanks for exposing the situation, I hope she loses her job and the Master Gardner Program can be what it is supposed to be.

  19. Old Kim says:

    Taxpayer’s money is a dwindling resource. We pay for the Master Garden Program and should be able to elect the person that best serves us. Maybe save money and get better results so everyone is happier.

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