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Extension educator: Dirt is his specialty

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Posted: Wednesday, January 8, 2014 1:47 pm | Updated: 1:51 pm, Wed Jan 8, 2014.

Kennebunk resident Frank Wertheim specializes in dirt, but only the kind you grow things in. An agriculture and horticulture extension educator with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension for the past 27 years, he holds degrees in plant and soil science from the University of Massachusetts.

Wertheim took a year off from his undergraduate education to work at a kibbutz in Israel that grew grapefruit and had extensive greenhouses. That experience prompted him to pursue a career in the agricultural field. Wertheim joined the Peace Corps after graduating, working with schools in Chile to help establish local gardens. When a position with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension became available, Wertheim took it, starting his career in Oxford County before transferring to the York County office in Springvale, as well as moving to Kennebunk, in 1991.

According to the University of Maine’s website, the Cooperative Extension program has 16 county offices in Maine. Staff, “working in collaboration with local citizen advisory boards, determine what educational offerings will best serve residents. Staff then design and deliver workshops and provide resources on a wide range of topics related to sustainable agriculture, natural resources, children, youth and families.”

In the middle of winter, The Village spoke with Wertheim about growing things, the Extension program in York County and what it’s like to work in the field.

Q: What does the Cooperative Extension provide?

A: A little history first. One hundred years ago, the federal government created the Land Grant College system, which, in addition to making education affordable to people, also was meant to provide agriculture outreach, as a much higher percentage of the population were farming then. It was a way to get research-based knowledge to people without them going to school. The University of Maine in Orono is the land grant college for Maine. The Cooperative Extension program is unique in that the university provides faculty, but they don’t teach credited college courses, but rather to the general public. Some 200,000 people live in York County. All of them could be our clients. We do a lot of volunteer training and do direct education with the public, as well as answer questions and provide information. We train volunteers on local needs and then they can train other people.

Q: What is a good January project for gardeners?

A: A good project this time of year is to build an inexpensive light table. People often start seedlings on the windowsill. There is not always enough light and it is often cold near the window. They end up with leggy, low-quality seedlings that won’t do very well. We have a link on our website to a fact sheet and video on how to build a light table. The Extension is always happy to answer questions. Lots of information is available for free, including “how-to” videos on YouTube. A successful garden starts and ends with the soil, a lot of people don’t understand that. Best place to start is to do a soil test through our office. We send samples to our lab. When the results come in, I can tell you what is needed.

Q: A number of programs are offered by your office, including beekeeping courses and Master Gardener volunteer classes, among others. Can you tell us about some of them?

A: We do offer beekeeping. Seven years ago, we were approached by the York County chapter of the Maine State Beekeepers Association. The demand was huge. We hold classes two times a year, in the spring and fall. There are a lot more beekeepers out there now and there is more health in small beekeepers’ hives.

We also have a York County farmers network. It’s very diverse, we have everything from livestock to traditional agriculture to greenhouses, orchards and nurseries in the area. It helps to bring people together, farmer to farmer. They learn from each other, share common issues, like the impact of land values on farming, or farm transfer from generation to generation; many don’t have a family member to take over the farm. We have young people who want to get into farming but don’t have the capital. We can help connect them. We plan indoor programs in the winter – a lot of it is social – we come together and share a meal. And we can extend resources from the university through the meetings. Last winter we did a five- or six-week soil series for farmers.

Our Master Gardener volunteer program is utilized in many ways. It helps us to reach many more people in York County. The program trains individuals in growing fruits and vegetables. Each participant is required to serve a 40-hour volunteer internship to complete the program and become a “certified” Master Gardener volunteer. This helps the Cooperative Extension to reach people in York County through the outreach efforts of certified volunteers.

Q: The cooperative extension started the Maine Harvest for Hunger program in 2000. What does the program provide and what does it mean to you?

A: The program provides a way for a large number of people who don’t have a lot of opportunity to get fresh produce to get it. Getting more nutrient-dense, higher quality food to people in need is really important. It is satisfying for me and the many volunteers to have the ability to get fresh food to so many that need help. Produce is gleaned from farms, provided by community gardens and from local gardeners. In 2013, more than 49,000 pounds of produce was gleaned or grown for the program in York County. It has engaged the community. We started the program and have learned so much from our volunteers about how to make it better. It is impressive; produce is now distributed to more than 45 different locations from senior centers to shelters and food pantries. There is no way it would happen without people coming together to help each other.

Q: Have you always been interested in gardening?

A: I have memories of my grandmother planting flowers and giving me a bulb to force, but my interest came mostly through landscaping work I did growing up on the North Shore of Massachusetts. After my experience in Israel, I began gardening on my own. I enjoy getting others interested in gardening. Our “Kids Can Grow” program, which we started here in 1999, has spread throughout the state and into New Hampshire. It gets kids excited about gardening at an early age.

Q: What’s the best thing about your job?

A: Creating programs and working with a community of volunteers, farmers and the farming community and engaging others. We are able to reach a tremendous amount of people. It is a community-based model. People come back year after year, enjoy the learning and make a difference in their community. The best part is working with motivated learners, building community and seeing that community affect others throughout York County.

Q: What is the one thing you would like everyone to know about the Cooperative Extension?

A: We work with a lot of diverse communities within the food economy – farmers, farmers markets, value-added food products, gardeners, schools, and young people – to utilize the resources of the university. We are committed to communication and relationship building along with providing research and information to the community. ■

A Closer look

The University of Maine Cooperative Extension Program in York County office is located at 21 Bradeen St., Suite 302, Springvale. For more information visit http://extension.umaine.edu/york/ or call 324-2814 or 800-287-1535 (in Maine).

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