For Master Gardener Bob Kellam, gardening is more than a pastime. It’s a link to his childhood past and an opportunity to practice the sustainable agriculture techniques he believes are key to the future.
Kellam is one of North Carolina’s 4,000 Extension Master Gardener volunteers and president of the North Carolina Master Gardener Volunteer Association.
Of his small-scale farm outside Raleigh, he says, “My roots run pretty deep here, and I have a personal interest in conserving the farm for future generations.” His grandfather bought the farm in 1935, and Bob grew up visiting and helping out there. The farm was also the site of his wedding to Susan Wyatt, and he’s made it his home since 1970.
Kellam and Wyatt were career employees at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in Research Triangle Park, but in their spare time, they kept a big garden on the farm. In 2004, when they retired from the EPA, they ramped up their gardening efforts substantially, starting a community-supported agriculture (or CSA) cooperative. Through the CSA, they provide organically grown fruits and vegetables to people who have signed up to receive weekly produce during growing season.
It was in the same year that Kellam and Wyatt became Master Gardeners, after finishing a six-month training course offered by North Carolina Cooperative Extension’s Wake County Center. Wyatt began volunteering her time through the local Extension center, while Kellam quickly became active on the state level as an association officer. He also serves as chair of Wake County’s Extension Advisory Council, and he’s a board member with the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service Foundation at N.C. State University.
Today, Kellam and Wyatt continue the CSA and also sell produce and eggs at the Midtown Farmers’ Market at North Hills in Raleigh. They grow about 40 varieties of organic vegetables and fruit, have a flock of 85 free-range hens and keep bees for pollination and honey.
Kellam’s involvement as a Master Gardener helps keep him abreast of the latest research pertaining to gardening and to small-scale food production. That’s not only good for his farm, he says, but also good for the people who look to him for information.
“The whole idea of the Master Gardener program is to provide information — reputable information — to consumers and the public on consumer horticulture,” he says. “When providing answers to people’s questions, we have to make sure we are using research-based information.”
It was the Master Gardener program that opened Kellam’s eyes to Cooperative Extension and what it provides growers and consumers.
“Cooperative Extension’s emphasis on local foods has been particularly important to us as farmers,” he says.
That’s because the local foods movement means more, he adds, than having new local customers.
“Local foods need to be part of our safety net,” Kellam says. “Most of our food travels 1,500 miles to get here, which means it’s highly dependent on the transportation network, which is itself highly dependent on fossil fuel. And if any link in that chain breaks, we could find ourselves with nothing in the grocery stores except what’s locally produced.
“I’m realistic enough to know that we can’t produce all our food locally without major changes in our economic model,” he adds, “but we can produce enough to give us a cushion.”
In addition to helping link local consumers with local producers, Cooperative Extension and its Master Gardeners also benefit communities by raising awareness of sustainable gardening and farming practices, Kellam says.
“Sustainability is one of the things Cooperative Extension stands for,” he says. “If we are going to sustain the quality of life we have, we are going to have to figure out some way to reverse this obsession we have with consuming — including consuming our natural resources, because most are finite and they are going to run out.
“Cooperative Extension is out there saying you need to be wise about your use of water. You need to be conscious of the stormwater runoff problem. You need to keep the nitrogen you put on your lawn from running into the storm sewer and ending up in the river and creating algae blooms and fish kills,” he says. “You need to be careful with pesticides.
You need to minimize fertilizer use. You need to stay away from invasive plants that will crowd out the native plants and be aware that the latest fad plants may not be the best choice for your yard or garden.
“Even in a place as urban as Wake County,” he says, “Cooperative Extension and the Master Gardener program are important and relevant to our past, our present and our future.”