Approximately 250 Master Gardener volunteers from across Washington will gather at Fort Warden State Park June 12 through14 to hone their skills.
 
This years annual leadership conference celebrates the 35th anniversary of the world’s first Master Gardeners program.
 
Highlights of the leadership conference include welcoming remarks and a keynote address at 8:30 am on June 13, by WSU Associate Vice President and Dean of Extension Linda Kirk Fox.
An awards banquet will be held Friday evening at which Fox will honor 12 of the program’s founders, including three members of the original Master Gardeners class who are still active volunteers.
 
There has never been a better time for the state’s Master Gardener volunteers to have a positive impact on their communities, said Bill Havens, president of the Master Gardeners Foundation of Washington State.
 
“Now is the time we can have a major beneficial impact as people cope with the problems of high fuel and food prices, and environmental concerns,” he said.
 
“People are wanting more locally grown food, food banks have an increasing need for more fresh local produce, and we’re in a place where we can make a real difference.”
 
The program was born in the early 1970’s  during a major recession and following the displacement of 60,000 aerospace workers in the Puget Sound area.
 
At the same time many young people around the nation were emerging from the sixties with an interest in “getting back to the earth.”
 
“WSU Extension offices especially in King, Pierce and Spokane counties were swamped by requests for assistance and information about gardening, ”said Tonie Fitzgerald, WSU Extension Master Gardener state program leader.
 
To meet the demand, WSU Extension agents serving King and Pierce counties created the idea of providing in-depth science-based training in horticulture and related topics to interested volunteers.
 
The trade in was a commitment of at least 50 hours of volunteer service to their communities.
 
In 1973 a class of about 200 volunteers completed the first training to become certified Master Gardeners, and the program was born.
 
“The Master Gardeners Foundation is working closely with WSU to expand programs and reinvigorate our efforts,” Havens said. “It’s generating a renewed enthusiasm.”
 
Today there are nearly 4,000 trained Master Gardeners in the state, serving more than 300,000 people annually, and providing literally millions of dollars worth of volunteer time and services to their communities.
 
Fitzgerald said the approach of offering skilled training in trade for a commitment of community volunteering has been a model for a variety of other university extension programs such as Master Livestock Advisors, Master Composters, Master Clothing and Textile Advisors, and the WSU Beach Watchers program.
 
“It’s a great model for extending the knowledge and the resources of the university out to our communities,” she said.