Growing Food, making impacts

MSU Extension Master Gardener volunteers make a difference in their home communities by teaching others how to grow food and help increase local food security.

Person in a garden picking cabbage
EMG harvesting produce in the Petoskey United Methodist Church donation garden. Photo courtesy of Molly Hauxwell Currier

Perhaps you have passed a community garden and wondered who is taking care of that produce and where it is going. Often, it is the handiwork of a team of volunteer expert gardeners -- the Michigan State University (MSU) Extension Master Gardeners. They’re working to make a difference in their communities by teaching others how to grow food and help increase local food security.

Since the program’s beginnings in 1978, more than 40,000 residents from 80 Michigan counties have been involved in the MSU Extension Master Gardener program. Today, the program comprises more than 3,500 individuals across nearly every county in Michigan. In 2018 alone, these passionate volunteers engaged in nearly 160,000 hours educating more than 600,000 residents.

“Becoming an Extension Master Gardener takes time, passion and dedication, but you don’t have to be an experienced gardener to sign up,” said Mary Wilson, MSU Extension Master Gardener program state coordinator.

“To become certified, each Extension Master Gardener goes through an intense 14-week training course and spends 40 volunteer hours giving back to their community. Over the past 10 years, Extension Master Gardeners have amassed 1.9 million volunteer hours, which has added value to Michigan communities of over $46 million.”

Participants share science-based, environmentally sound gardening knowledge with the gardening public through four core programming areas:

  • Environmental stewardship.
  • Food security.
  • Community and quality of life.
  • Youth development through gardening.

They also support MSU and MSU Extension through Smart Gardening outreach, assist with soil test results, and staff the Ask an Expert online system and the statewide MSU Lawn and Garden Hotline. In 2018, Extension Master Gardeners fielded nearly 7,000 calls through the hotline and answered 1,600 Ask an Expert questions.

“We have these passionate volunteers who care about plants, and they are sharing that information with others,” Wilson said. “Our job is to identify, engage and inspire these people to make a difference in their communities and positively impact people’s lives. Extension Master Gardeners are educating community members on how to produce food, in turn, this food is often donated to people in the community to help improve their access to safe, nutritious food.”

Holland Community Gardens in Ottawa County is a 15,000-square-foot demonstration garden that brings the community together through the work of local Extension Master Gardeners in partnership with local groups and churches. They teach research-based gardening practices to interested community groups that wish to improve food security near home.

In 2018, they produced 6,100 pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables that were donated to the Community Action House and Community Action Agency of Ottawa County.
“Every single day, the Holland Community Garden makes a direct impact for the neighbors who seek help at Community Action House,” said David Lee, communications specialist at Community Action House. “Five days a week, fresh produce is also provided to visitors seeking hunger relief at our food pantry, which provides food for over 3,000 people annually.”

In Clio, they staff a garden plot and deliver the produce they grow to 100 senior residents at a manufactured home community. In Rochester and Standish, they mentor adults with disabilities to help increase their employability through farm and horticulture skills.
Through their work, Extension Master Gardeners donated roughly 140,000 pounds of produce and spent about 13,000 volunteer hours teaching Michigan residents how to grow food and increase food security.

“Through these partnerships, we are helping to ensure the donated food is available and distributed, and recipients know how to use the fresh produce,” Wilson said.

This article was published in In the Field, a yearly magazine produced by the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at Michigan State University. To view past issues of In the Field, visit For more information, email Holly Whetstone, editor, at or call 517-355-0123.

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