Next up in our semi-regular Get a Job series is Sharon Stolen, coordinator of the Master Gardener program and all-round incredible resource for all things horticultural in southern California. She’s an incredibly smart, friendly, talented woman who works harder than anyone I know, and remains incredibly generous with her time.  She’s also started a really cool project that I think should be taken up by master gardener groups everywhere.  So first, the interview–and after that, a bit more on the new project.

What do you do for a living?

I am a University of California Cooperative Extension Master Gardener Program Coordinator.

 How’d you get started in this job, or what was your first job in the plant world?

I worked for University of Illinois in and learned all about extension education.  Rather than plants for me, it began with chickens.

What’s your typical day like?

Days are spent with Master Gardener volunteers planning our educational outreach to the community. We offer hands on demonstrations, presentations, seminars, school garden workshops, a hotline, and are found in the county working with gardeners of all ages.

What’s the coolest thing you get to do at work, and what’s the nastiest, most boring, most soul-sucking awful thing you have to do at work?

I have the privilege of working with 300+ diverse wonderful volunteers and also with UC scientists.  We create a “train the trainer” atmosphere.

The worst thing is surviving the recession. UC ANR has taken severe cutbacks the last ten years.

What’s the most common misconception about what you do?

That I am an expert horticulturist, I know how to find experts in all areas to teach our Master Gardeners. But I do not have the expertise in content. I coordinate the Master Gardener program in Orange County and their public outreach.

What does the future look like for your job?  Are there technology changes, outsourcing, or other forces at work that are going to change your job going forward?

UC ANR is committed to research and outreach and we will continue serving the community. The public is interested in gardening. Since we started our speakers bureau three years ago we served 18,000. At the Great Park Farm+Food Lab we have talked to 36,000 residents. Technology and social media could help us reach more.

 What advice would you give to somebody thinking about getting into your line of work?

Be a people person and flexible like Gumby.

Anything I didn’t ask?  Anything else you want readers of GardenRant to know?  Write your own question and answer it here.

If you have a gardening question call your local Master Gardener Hotline, and check us out on the website!

And now a bit more about her latest project, the Master Food Preserver program.  Think about it:  County extension offices used to be THE resource for making sure people knew how to safely can and preserve food.  Now that everybody’s doing their own pickles and jam again, that role needs to come back!  And the master gardener infrastructure is the perfect place to put it.  Here’s how the program works:

Who is a Master Food Preserver?

A Master Food Preserver (MFP) is a volunteer who is formally educated in food preservation and is certified by a university cooperative extension. A public-service community outreach, it provides up-to-date information on food safety and preservation. Volunteers are not only qualified to teach food preservation, but also to disseminate that knowledge via lectures, talks, and other county events.  (It’s a separate program from Master Gardeners, but there’s obviously a lot of overlap.)

 What do they do:

Since Orange County has just 16 MFP’s we will limit their volunteer program to teaching new classes, supporting the OC Fair, a new Helpline, a new webpage and a few demonstrations.  MFP’s will teach an advanced program to our MG’s this winter to MG’s interested in learning how to safely preserve.

 The History:

Several years ago various MG’s asked us to consider adding a UCCE Master Food Preserver program to Orange County. As the UC has endured budget cuts our home economics programs have taken hard hits. The nearest place to learn about researched food safety was in San Bernardino. Thus Sharon Jones and Irmagaard Waltz trekked across county lines to learn what it takes to become a MFP. They spent hundreds of hours dissecting and researching material to launch a program here. In the meantime LA County was doing the same thing.  Brenda Roche, Food and Nutrition Advisor for LA County agreed to supervise our program as well.

Sharon and Irmagaard led a train the trainer group of MG’s. This was our first step because these volunteers already understood the UC policies and were just tackling a new content area for volunteering. The following year we opened up our class and trained a dozen more volunteers in a kitchen at the Fine Arts Center in Irvine

 The requirements:

As MG’s learn the world of horticulture, MFP’s learn about the world of food safety. The training is about 50 hours including lectures and hands on preservation.

Master Food Preservers must then get 12 hours of continuing education each year.  MFP’s commit to volunteer and track their hours like the MG’s do.

 What is next:

MFP’s will be training another dozen new volunteers  this month.  There are now eight counties with MFP programs.