Photo by Louise Docker
When the University of Maryland Agriculture Extension Office announced it would be shutting down its Home and Garden Information Center phone lines this December, a lot of gardeners around the state expressed deep dismay. Like other Extension Offices at other universities across the country, the staff and highly-trained volunteers at the UMD have provided answers to gardening questions for more than two decades.
Many area gardeners wondered if the phone lines going quiet was a sign that the entire Extension Office was in financial trouble, lacked adequate funding, or would soon close.
UMD Extension Specialist Jon Traunfeld said that the issue was really more about putting the resources of the office where they are most requested. Although many people still want help dealing with plant pests and diseases, they are now more likely to request assistance via their computer instead of their phones.
“Back when we started, an 1-800 number used to be cool,” he said. Long distance used to be expensive, and for some in the state, a free phone call to an expert was a really great thing. Now, people jump online to seek answers to their garden conundrums.
The Extension Office has answered 445,000 calls on the HGIC “hotline” since 1990, but the websites have logged over 1 million user sessions each year. While usage of the online tools has increased, there’s been a 10-15% yearly decrease of the phone calls. “The decline in phone calls is no reflection on our horticulture consultants, known for their professionalism, expertise, and practical answers,” officials from the Extension Office stated in an email this week.
In some ways, the change may be about changing societal communication habits more than any thing related to budgets. An increasing number of people seem hesitant to use their phone to actually speak to other human beings (as was noted in this astonishing article by the NY Times this summer about twenty-somethings who actually seem to fear talking on the phone and avoid it all cost). It is no surprise that many would rather post a photo, watch a YouTube video, or use a Facebook page than make a phone call to talk to someone about the strange bugs on their tomato plants or black spots on their tree leaves.
“As websites grew and social media grew, we had fewer and fewer phone calls.” Closing the Home Garden Information Center phone lines was a tough decision, Traunfeld said, but one that he ultimately felt was the best thing to do. The good news is that there are more and more people becoming Master Gardeners, and more and more events where the public can meet those MGs in person to talk over their gardens, flowers and vegetables, including public festivals and weekly farmers markets.
Traunfeld also added that there are some real advantages to using the UMD website as an interface, such as a newly installed widget that allows people to post photos of their problems so that the Master Gardeners and staff at UMD can clearly see the pest or situation being described.
One concern expressed in the gardening world is that many older residents who don’t own computers, aren’t digitally savvy, or don’t like using computer-based interfaces, will go without assistance – a concern seemingly acknowledged on the UMD website help page which currently reads: “We answer plant and pest questions. Call us – Monday – Friday, 8 a.m. – 1 p.m. (ET) 800-342-2507 (Outside MD, 410-531-1757) No confusing menus – just a real person to answer your questions!”
There are also those who worry that people who lack computer access due to economic hardship will now lack a way to get free, non-commercialized garden help.
“As we enter the environmental challenges to come, we need more assistance like this for residents of the county, not less, and while the web and email are fine at times, it cannot ultimately match a phone conversation,” Gordon Clark stated via email this week. Clark is the Executive Director of Montgomery Victory Gardens (MVG), a non-profit in the large Maryland county that lies just outside of Washington, DC. MVG works to increase environmental awareness, alleviate hunger, and build a more robust, sustainable local food system by teaching people how to grow their own food. MVG also advocates for good food policy.
The disappearance of the call lines at the UMD Extension, Clark said, will be “a terrible loss.”
Radhika Chari, a gardener from Takoma Park, agrees with Clark. Last week she posted news about the phone lines being silenced to her garden club’s listserv, and noted, “I’ve relied on their staff to answer so many questions, I can’t believe that email can really replace talking something through.”
As of December 22, callers to the Home Garden Information Center lines will hear a recorded message that redirects them to the website or local county offices that still have phone lines.
*Please note: This blog does not use listserv quotes without express notice and written consent. Radhika Chari’s quote was used by permission. Gordon Clark was interviewed via a private, one-on-one email.