Customer Service Skills for Master Gardener Volunteers

Yesterday, I received a disturbing phone call. A former colleague, who I have great respect for, let me know that he has heard multiple, independent, negative reports about the Master Gardener Program in his community. In one case, he heard of a Master Gardener yelling at a community member. In other cases, Master Gardeners were seen as rude or demeaning.

This is a difficult call to respond to. My colleague heard this information second-hand. Thus, it is hard to judge the veracity of these second hand reports. My colleague also didn’t have names to share. Thus, it is difficult to go to the source of the issue, and to address this matter, directly.

Unfortunately, in my 12-years of experience as Oregon’s Statewide Master Gardener Program Coordinator, I have occassionally (very rarely) seen a volunteer behave in a way that is not in line with the Volunteer Code of Conduct.

The first line of the Volunteer Code of Conduct reads:

“When volunteering as an Oregon State University Extension Master Gardener, I will:

  • Represent OSU Extension, the OSU Extension Master Gardener Program and my individual county or local program with professionalism, dignity and pride, and be responsible for conducting myself with courtesy and appropriate behavior.”

Those words: professionalism, dignity, pride, and courtesy all suggest the type of behavior that we expect and require of Master Gardener volunteers. But, these words can have very different meanings to different people. Some of our volunteers may not have participated in the professional workforce, or they may be retired from work for quite some time. Some of our volunteers may have been high level supervisors when they were working, and are unaccustomed to serving in role that requires well-developed customer service skills. And in some cases, long-time and excellent volunteers may be going through a significant life change that impacts their ability to provide stellar service to the gardening public. This Journal of Extension article provides options for working with volunteers who might be experience medical issues that impact their ability to volunteer (see scenario #3).

Four Customer Service Skills for Master Gardeners

Let’s set the stage by what we mean by the words professionalism, dignity, pride, and courtesy.

First, it should be clear that yelling or other aggressive or belittling behavior will NEVER be tolerated in the Master Gardener Program: towards the gardening public, other volunteers, or Extension faculty and staff. Volunteers who behave in this way should be removed from the situation. Suspension or expulsion may be warranted, depending upon the severity of the situation. In other cases, the volunteer may simply need the time and space to collect themselves and to calm down. If you would like advice on how best to handle a difficult volunteer situation, please consult trusted colleagues who are Master Gardener coordinators. As the statewide Extension Master Gardener coordinator, I unfortunately have extensive experience in dealing with these types of situations, and can provide a list of options that would be appropriate for your situation.

Master Gardeners are volunteers who support the general public’s efforts to learn or improve their sustainable gardening skills. Basic customer service skills are crucial to helping others.

If you think it could be useful for your group, you may want to give your Master Gardener volunteers one hour of continuing education credits for reading this post (included embedded links) and watching the customer service videos.

Customer service skills for Master Gardeners include:

  • Patience: People who reach out to the Master Gardener Program for advice or support are often confused and frustrated. They may have tried their hand at gardening for the very first time, and failed. Or, a plant that they truly value may be in decline. Being listened to and handled with patience goes a long way in helping others feel at ease, and to have confidence that you can help alleviate their current frustrations. Your attitude will help to set and guide the tone for others, and can help steer interactions towards a more positive path.
This UM Extension video discusses the importance of keeping a positive attitude, when working with the public.

2. Attentiveness: The ability to truly listen is crucial to providing great service for a number of reasons. Not only is it important to pay attention to individual gardeners’ experiences, but it’s also important to be mindful and attentive to the feedback that you receive. Listening is a skill that can be developed with practice.

This UM Extension Video discusses the importance of listening, for successful customer service.

3. Curiosity: In many ways, being a Master Gardener is like being a plant detective. The gardener who is asking for help will give clues as to what could be wrong, if the volunteer asks the right questions and listens carefully to their responses. Cultivate a sense of curiosity in Master Gardener work, rather than the sense that Master Gardeners should immediately know the answer(s). Another great thing about fostering a sense of curiosity is that it breaks down barriers between Master Gardener volunteers and the gardening public. Master Gardeners who assume an air of authority or expertise limit conversations to a one way transmission of knowledge. Assuming an air of authority can also come off as being rude and dismissive. Curious Master Gardeners, on the other hand, invite the gardening public into a dynamic conversation, and put people at ease.

This oldie but goodie video from the Metro Area Master Gardener Program demonstrates the right way and the wrong way to work with gardeners who phone the plant clinic desk.
In this video, the Metro Area Master Gardeners demonstrate the importance of asking questions and getting more information, so that the volunteer can research the issue. A good answer, and not a quick answer, is what Master Gardeners should work towards.

More on Curiosity and Attentiveness: In 2019, I took the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science intensive workshop. It was a life-changing experience for me, that I wrote about in another blog post. During the workshop, I learned how to begin to listen deeply to others, and especially to those that I did not agree with. The skills of curiosity and attentiveness can be learned, are not easy to maintain, and get better with practice. These skills are directly transferable to all walks of life, including work in the Master Gardener Program. [I wish I could send everyone to the Alan Alda workshop! I truly felt that I was learning from a Master . . . because I was.]

In this PBS News Hour video clip, Alan Alda discusses the importance of curiosity and attentiveness to effective communication.

4. Collaboration: Collaboration is essential to the success of the Extension Master Gardener Program. We receive too many queries, and reach so many people, that no single Master Gardener can do it all. Master Gardeners who eschew collaboration, and instead take a dictatorial approach to their volunteer shifts, can come off as bossy. Often, other volunteers may request not to work with that individual. Tips on how to work with a ‘bossy’ volunteer can be found in Scenario #2 of this Journal of Extension article.

This Metro Master Gardener video does a great job of demonstrating how to make new volunteers feel welcome, and how to work together as a team on the plant clinic desk.

A Note on the Master Gardener Dress Code

One of the things I love most about working in a College of Agricultural Sciences is that the dress code is decidely relaxed. But, there can be cases when volunteers are a bit too relaxed with their attire, when working as a Master Gardener volunteer. Volunteers should dress in an appropriate and professional manner suitable for the activity or location.

  • “Office casual” is appropriate for speaking engagements, indoor plant clinics, and schools.
  • Gardening work clothes are appropriate for working in demonstration gardens and some outdoor events.
  • Always wear your Master Gardener badge (or intern badge) when working as a Master Gardener volunteer.

Best Management Practices for Master Gardener Plant Sales

Since mid-August, an advisory group consisting of myself, OSU Extension faculty (Brooke Edmunds), OSU MG volunteers (Linda Coakley and Ruth Estrada), and ODA Invasive Pest Professionals (Beth Myers-Shenai and Chris Hedstrom) have been working on developing guidance for best management practices for MG plant sales. This effort emerged as a result of increased awareness of how plant sales and plant swaps might serve as venues for invasive pest introduction or spread. Given the focus of the Master Gardener Program, we wanted to work together to do our part to stem the introduction spread of invasives, while delivering high quality plants to MG Plant sale customers.

THIS DOCUMENT is what our group has developed. As questions related to this document arise, I will start developing an associated FAQ list. Please let me emphasize, however, that the intention is not to police plant sales, but to provide guidance on how we can all work together to truly practice sustainable gardening.

FAQs (new questions and answers will be added, as soon as possible)

Q: How quickly must Master Gardeners adopt the best management practices?

A: Of the three recommendations, only the first (‘Apply for and receive a temporary nursery license from the Oregon Department of Agriculture’) is a legal requirement to host a short-term plant sale in Oregon. That recommendation must be adhered to, immediately (and should have been adhered to, in the past).

The other two recommendations (‘Only sell plants that are free from pests’; ‘Only sell plants that are properly identified, cross-checked against state and local noxious wee lists, and tagged’) should be adopted as soon as is practical for 2019 plant sales, but should become standard practice for plant sales in 2020, and beyond. For example, if a large part of your 2019 plant sale inventory consists of donated plants dug from home gardens, or another similar source, you are not expected to dispose of those plants. But, for plant sales in 2020 and beyond, Master Gardener groups should be proactively planning for a different approach to procuring plant materials for sale.

Q: How will these best management practices be enforced?

A: It is not my intention to act as the plant sale police. If I hear of reports of Master Gardener groups using practices that contradict the plant sale best management practices, I will reach out to the key organizers in an effort to raise awareness of the issue, and to strategize on how to remedy the situation.

Q: Can we take stem cuttings from plants grown in garden soil, if the plant is healthy and pest-free?

A: Yes.  As long as a cutting is from the above-ground portion of a healthy plant (inspected to be disease and pest free), then risk of invasive pest introduction and spread is minimized. Movement of soil poses the greatest risk, and thus root cuttings should not be taken.

Updated Volunteer Code of Conduct

Please note the Master Gardener Code of Conduct has been updated to include a provision prohibiting workplace violence. This statement has been reviewed and approved by OSU General Counsel and OSU Risk.

Workplace violence prohibited

The safety and wellbeing of OSU Extension employees, clients, volunteers, students and visitors is of utmost importance. Threatening behavior, both verbal and physical, and acts of violence at OSU Extension offices, at OSU Extension events, or by electronic means will not be tolerated. Any person who engages in this behavior may be removed from the premises and may be dismissed from the OSU Extension Master Gardener Program.

If you experience workplace violence while serving as an Extension Master Gardener Volunteer, please communicate with your Extension Master Gardener Coordinator as quickly as possible so the matter can be addressed.

This addition to our code of conduct is meant to clearly spell out that behavior including but not limited to, yelling/screaming, grabbing, pushing, or other violent and threatening behaviors that occur while someone is serving as a Master Gardener volunteer is grounds for dismissal from the program. In the past, we have always relied upon the first bullet point of our code of conduct to lay out what types of behaviors are expected:

  • Represent OSU Extension, the OSU Extension Master Gardener Program and my individual county or local program with professionalism, dignity and pride, and be responsible for conducting myself with courtesy and appropriate behavior.

The statement prohibiting workplace violence is meant to clearly spell out what types of behaviors will not be tolerated.

You can access the updated Code of Conduct on the FORMS page of this website.

Plant Clinic Procedures for Master Gardeners

Master Gardeners provide research-based recommendations for the home gardeners, community gardeners and others who grow for fun, relaxation or other non-commercial reasons.

Plant Clinic Procedures:

In most counties, Master Gardeners staff Plant Clinic phone lines and desks at county Extension offices.  Many counties also offer Plant Clinics in their communities, (i.e. at farmers’ markets, fairs or garden retail outlets).  Plant Clinics are a valuable service to the community, where Oregonians can ask questions about their home or community garden.  Those who utilize the services of a Master Gardener Plant Clinic are often referred to as our ‘clients’.  To ensure high quality answers to questions received at Master Gardener Plant Clinics, it is important that volunteers are trained to recognize and utilize appropriate resources and to consult with OSU Extension faculty and/or expert Master Gardeners, as needed.

Appropriate resources include the Pacific Northwest Weed, Insect and Disease Management Handbooks; peer-reviewed journal articles, OSU Extension publications, brochures and hand-outs; eXtension and/or university Extension websites; online materials produces by eXtension and/or university Extension Services; and other resources that contain validated, research-based content.  In addition, to utilizing county Extension faculty and expert Master Gardeners, on campus resources (e.g. OSU Plant Clinic; OSU Herbarium, Oregon State Arthropod Collection), Extension specialists, and other OSU faculty should be consulted when needed.

Master Gardener volunteers should utilize these resources to provide research-based information to those seeking information or advice on home and/or community gardening.  Master Gardener volunteers are not permitted to answer questions for commercial growers, or questions related to commercial production.

Master Gardener Plant Clinics accept plant (live, dead or preserved), arthropod (dead or preserved) and soil specimens for assessment.  Safety of the volunteers is paramount.  For this reason, the Master Gardener Plant Clinics will not accept swabs, tissues, hair or other specimens of human or animal origin; articles of clothing, bedding or towels; personal hygiene items such as toothbrushes, hairbrushes or any other items that may be contaminated with human or animal pathogens, parasites or secretions.  Clients with questions about possible human or animal health need to direct those inquiries to the appropriate public health or veterinary experts in the community.

A check list of the of what Master Gardeners can and can not do in plant clinic can be found below.

Guidance for Master Gardener Plant clinics, taken from page 18 of ‘An Introduction to Being a Master Gardener Volunteer’, EM8749 with OSU Extension.

Occasionally, a client may submit a sample to or seek advice from the Master Gardener Plant Clinic that could have implications for human health.  Examples include:  bed bugs, spiders, suspected arthropod-caused skin lesions, pesticide poisoning, poisonous plants, etc.  If this is the case, it is important to remember that Master Gardener volunteers are not permitted to offer medical evaluations, diagnoses or advice on treatment.  Instead, the client should be referred to a trained professional for these services.  Master Gardener volunteers are permitted to utilize appropriate resources to identify a plant or arthropod sample (e.g. bed bugs, poison ivy) – but not lesions, rashes or other symptoms that may have been caused by a plant or an arthropod (e.g. the bite marks or rash that could be caused by bed bugs or poison ivy).  OSU Extension faculty staff and volunteers should refer all clients seeking advice on managing any potential life/safety situations to medical or other trained professionals.

Often, the samples that are submitted to Plant Clinic make it difficult to confidently arrive at an accurate identification.  For example, the client may submit only a small portion plant foliage, or may submit a crushed arthropod sample between two pieces of tape.  If this is the case, and especially for those cases where the identity of the plant or arthropod could have implications to human health (i.e. a doctor would treat a patient who ingested a non-poisonous plant different than they would a patient who ingested a poisonous plant), it is important to use appropriate language when communicating findings to a client.  An example of appropriate language is:  “Based upon the information provided to OSU Extension and from the research conducted, it appears that this plant is a XXXXXX plant, which is listed as not poisonous.”

Master Gardener volunteers working in the Plant Clinic should be provided with continuing education and support, to ensure that they are current on information, understand appropriate resource use, recognize when they should seek additional help or support, and know that it is more important to accurately say ‘we can’t answer that question’ (for whatever reason – not enough plant material, sample to crushed to identify, no research based resources on the topic) than to provide an incorrect answer.


OSU policy for Master Gardener recommendations to clients:

  • Use appropriate research-based resources when providing recommendations.  Examples of research-based resources include the PNW Handbooks, OSU Extension Publications, other Extension publications, peer-reviewed journal articles.
  • MGs are not allowed to suggest homemade pesticides to clients. In addition to poor efficacy and potential plant injury, many homemade pesticides violate federal law. There are two laws that address this issue, the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) and the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA) Section 408. More information on this issue can be found here:
  • Master Gardeners are objective in their recommendations, and thus inform the client of all research-supported options:  Cultural, biological, and chemical (synthetic and organic).  Even if you do not use synthetic chemicals in your own garden, you should not exclude this option – so long as it is research-based – when making recommendations to the client.
  • Refer commercial clients to an appropriate extension agent


OSU Extension Master Gardener Program Stance on Select Gardening Topics:

As research on sustainable gardening practices continues to grow, we are learning more and more about those practices that methodologies that are backed by objective research.  Below you will find links to topics that have been reviewed by OSU faculty against the current published literature on the topic, and our current stance on what constitutes a research-based recommendation for that topic.

  • Compost Tea Policy: Research suggests that compost teas are equivalent to composts and inorganic fertilizers, as a source of plant nutrients and in their effect on plant growth. However, we are not able to make a clear recommendation on the use of compost teas as a disease suppressant.
  • Marijuana Policy:  Oregon State University and the Oregon State University Extension Master Gardener program are recipients of federal funding.  Oregon State University and the Oregon State University Extension Master Gardener program are also governed by the federal Controlled Substances Act, the Drug-Free Workplace Act and the Drug Free Schools and Communities Act.  Thus, to guard against risk of losing Federal funding and to adhere to the federal laws that govern our activities, OSU Extension Faculty, Staff and Volunteers do not provide advice or referrals on the culture, care and/or use of marijuana.

August 2018 Statewide MG Program Update and Helpful Hints

Developing Best Management Practices for Master Gardener Plant Sales

The Master Gardener Best management practices task force met via conference call, last week. Our task force include Master Gardener volunteers who coordinate their Master Gardener Association plant sale, and have also operated a commercial nursery. The task force also includes the Oregon Department of Agriculture’s invasive species response coordinator, myself (as statewide Master Gardener Program coordinator), and Brooke Edmunds (as county MG faculty). Prior to working for OSU, Brooke worked with the Oregon Department Plant Health group, where part of her work involved certification of nursery plants. Thus, we have a lot of expertise in the group.

We will soon be surveying plant sale coordinators, to find out:

  • do you apply for an ODA temporary nursery license?
  • where do you get your plants for MG plant sales?
  • how and where are they propagated?
  • what are your concerns regarding changes to plant sale guidelines?

The goal of the survey is to get a general sense of what Master Gardener Associations are currently doing, to identify key areas of risk for invasive species introduction, and to provide guidance on how to transition to lower risk activities. Please keep an eye out for the survey, and share with your plant sale coordinators, when available.

We are also developing a draft list of best management practices for Master Gardener Plant sales, in cooperation with our Extension colleagues, volunteers, and nursery industry professionals. In the next 4-6 weeks, we expect to share this list of practices, as well as case studies of Master Gardener Associations that have successfully transitioned from higher risk to lower risk plant sale activities.

Please stay tuned!

Food Safety for Master Gardener Tasting Events (i.e. Tomato Tasting)

A question recently came in about how to approach an event such as a tomato tasting, to ensure safe food handling and food safety. I consulted with Jeanne Brandt, statewide coordinator of the OSU Extension Master Food Preserver Program, to get her feedback. Below is her response (edited for brevity).

My understanding is that sharing samples is part of educational programming, not food service, so that site or event licenses and food handler’s permits are not required.  Those come into play when any products are sold.  Providing samples for educational purposes is included in liability coverage offered by OSU, as long as best practices are used to prepare them. We put out a sign that says  “Products made/prepared by volunteers in our classroom or home kitchens.”  This makes booth visitors aware of where the products came from and that they are not commercial, so they can choose to sample or not.  

This resource has guidance for handling produce samples at public events:

https://www.fcs.uga.edu/docs/13_Keeping_Food_Safe_at_Market.pdf

Page 3 has some good guidelines for preparing samples.

Best practices are good hygiene, clean produce, and protection from contamination by the customers. That’s not as easy as it sounds,  since we are often places without handwashing stations.  Setting up individual samples so that customers can’t handle more than their own sample is ideal. 

Clients with Biting Bug Infestations, Without an Apparent Cause

Every now and then, a client comes into the Extension office, wanting advice for how to deal with insects that are biting them, or that have infested their house. After some conversation, or time to examine the sample that the client has brought into the office, you may determine that the client might be feeling a sensation on their skin, but that it is not due to an insect or mite issue. How do you help these clients? The cases are often heartbreaking: a client desperate for relief, with no apparent cause or solution in sight. Colleagues in extension published an excellent article on this topic, a few years ago, that includes a long list of recommendations for working with clients who believe their body and/or environment is infested with insects or mites, despite evidence to the contrary. Please read, and share with your Master Gardener volunteers, as needed.

Kerr et al. 2014. Recommendations for extension professionals and volunteers regarding individuals with delusional infestation. Journal of the NACAA 7(2).

Best Practices in MG Plant Sales

Master Gardener plant sales are a major fundraiser for many Master Gardener Associations. However, recent Oregon Department of Agriculture quarantines and restrictions to the movement of plants and soils in Washington County, Oregon have affected some Master Gardener plant sales and have highlighted the role that plants sales may play in promoting invasive species introductions.

In fact, a recent news story reported on the role of a Coos County plant sale in introducing an invasive weed from India. Other news reports show that the sale of invasive plants, or that the introduction of invasive species via plant sales, is neither unique nor isolated (e.g. ‘Invasive species for sale in Kootenay region’).

And, plant trades between gardens are also potential venues for the movement of native plants. In fact, research conducted in the United Kingdom estimates that ~2 million seeds are moved via the movement of garden soils and soils for new housing developments. Further, the researchers found that the risk of introducing invasive plants was far greater from the movement of garden soils, than other soil types.

Over the next year, a task force will work to develop best practices for Master Gardener plant sales, in order to prevent the introduction and spread of invasive species in Oregon. The task force includes two Master Gardeners, two Master Gardener faculty, and an advisor from the Oregon Department of Agriculture. As we develop specific recommendations, we will post them for feedback and critique. Stay tuned!

 

 

How Long Should OSU Retain Volunteer Records

Hi Folks,

Lincoln County is cleaning up files, and wanted to know how long volunteer records should be retained. When I looked up the rule on the Oregon Secretary of State Website, I noticed that the length of record retention has DECREASED. In the past, it was 7 years for individual records and 9 years for program records. Now, you only have to retain individual records and program records for 5 years.

I have copied relevant text, below.

(20) Volunteer Program Records Records document the activities and administration of volunteer programs in an agency. Records may include but are not limited to volunteer applications, emergency notification forms, volunteer hour statistics, volunteer program publicity records, insurance requirement information, and related documentation. SEE ALSO Criminal Background Check Records in this section. (Retention: (a) Retain individual volunteer records: 5 years after volunteer separation, destroy; (b) Retain all other volunteer program records: 5 years, destroy).

Master Gardener Potlucks and Bake Sales

A question came up about food safety and food handling at Master Gardener events, such as a potluck of a bake sale.

After discussions with Jean Brandt (OSU Master Food Preservers), Lauren Gwin (OSU Small Farms), Jeff Choate (OSU Master Gardeners, Lane County), Patti Choate (OSU Risk), and local Departments of Health, we have a few guidelines that we can share.

  1. Public potlucks are not permissible. Master Gardener potlucks are permissible if the food is shared in good faith, by members of the Master Gardener group.
  2. Even in a closed, Master Gardener group, volunteers should adhere to best practices for food handling and food safety. Please consult OSU Resources on Food Safety, for more information.
  3. For bake sales, which are public events, Lauren Gwin’s recent publication on Oregon’s Home Baking Bill is an excellent resource.
    1. Home-baked goods should be labelled as such, so that people can make informed decisions about their purchase. An example sign can be found here.
    2. Bake sales should exclude home-baked goods that are potentially hazardous, from a food safety point of view.  Potentially hazardous foods include foods that require refrigeration or hot holding. Examples requiring refrigeration are cream cheese cakes, cream cheese pies. Baked goods cannot have milk or dairy in a filling, glazing, or frosting, because they also would require refrigeration (for example cinnamon rolls with cream cheese frosting).

Advanced Training Webinars for Master Gardener Continuing Education Credit

In reading through the survey responses coming in for our CHAP survey, it is becoming obvious that:
1) many veteran MG volunteers express frustration at not having options to maintain their MG certification ~ particularly for the continuing education requirement. To maintain certification, volunteers need to accrue 10 hours of continuing education and 20 volunteer service hours, annually.
2) many of these same folks seem not to know about the Advanced Training webinars that Brooke Edmunds has put together. These webinars are all eligible for MG continuing education credit (one hour per class). The 2018 webinars and the 2017 webinars, combined, equal nine hours of continuing education credit ~  just one away from meeting the continuing education recertification requirement.
Please make sure that your veteran MGs know about this option.

Volunteer Injured? What to Do?

Over the years, we have had very few instances of volunteer injuries over the years. Due diligence when planning events and working in demonstration gardens can greatly help cut down on accidents and injuries. Due diligence includes:

  • Forming a safety committee, for Master Gardener demonstration gardens. The safety committee could write short articles for Master Gardener newsletters or host short learning opportunities in the the garden. Topics could include: safe tool use and storage, chemical use and storage, ergonomics.
  • Doing a safety and risk tour of all sites where programs will be held, such as for tours, public lectures, plant sales. Note potential safety hazards (irregular walkways, decks that have missing boards, etc.), and take corrective action (i.e. drop that site from the tour, cordon off areas where the public should not go, etc.).

In the instance where a volunteer has injured themselves while in the act of volunteering, their supervisor should complete the HR Advocate Public Incident Reporting form, which is available online at http://risk.oregonstate.edu/workerscomp/forms. This form is to be completed by the person supervising/coordinating the volunteer activities to identify what occurred.

In order for this reporting system to be used, the volunteer should have completed the forms required to serve as an OSU Volunteer. These include:

  • Conditions of Volunteer Service Form (must be filled out and signed, annually)
  • Master Gardener Position Description
  • Master Gardener Code of Conduct

More information on the volunteer process and links to the forms for volunteer service from an OSU Risk perspective, can be found online at http://risk.oregonstate.edu/insurance/volunteer.

You can access the required Master Gardener forms at: http://blogs.oregonstate.edu/mgcoordinators/forms/