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LOCKPORT – The growing season is over all too soon for Western New York, so it’s no wonder the anticipation of spring and the wish to end a long winter are on everybody’s mind.

But for John A. Farfaglia, community educator and horticulturist for Cornell Cooperative Extension of Niagara County, getting everybody ready for spring and the growing season is his job – all year long.

“Everyone is dying to get out and plant,” he said.

Farfaglia works year-round helping to answer thousands of questions from professional landscapers and arborists to farmers and home gardeners. He said he also gets a lot of questions about insects, which he said is another subset of expertise for horticulturists.

“When you are growing plants, sooner or later you run into pests. You need to know what it takes to grow a plant – the light, the air, the water, the fertilizer and the pest problems,” Farfaglia said of his work on behalf of the community.

He is a graduate of Cornell University’s School of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and his job is to make the university’s wealth of research in all forms of agriculture more accessible to the public – new advancements such as dwarf fruit trees, vegetable varieties and continuing advancements in the dairy and field crop industries.

He has been with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Niagara County for more than 30 years. He met with The Buffalo News inside the CCE greenhouse.

How did you get started?

I was interested in gardening from the time I was 10 years old or around that age. I had close relatives who were gardeners. I had an uncle who was a vegetable farmer. I just always remember liking to grow things, getting my hands dirty.

But you’ve made this more than just a hobby.

By the time I was in high school, I thought, “I might want to get into this field.” I had a couple of summer jobs working at nurseries and other businesses. My second year at Cornell – I was a major in horticulture – I was able to get a job at a Cornell Cooperative Extension in Cortland County. I was actually doing a lot of the same work I do now, but as a part-time assistant. When I first got out of college I taught at BOCES, but I was only there for three months. That’s when a friend told me about a job here in Niagara County.

What do you like about Niagara County?

I am from Central New York, so the first thing I really liked about it was – where I grew up the main agriculture was dairy farming and field crops, and when I came out here there was such diversity. It’s just a great area with microclimates, where you can grow things you can’t grow in Central New York, where it’s one hardiness zone colder. There were also a lot of greenhouses at the time. I also found the people to be quite friendly.

Is there a lot more interest in gardening lately? I’ve noticed a lot of garden walks are offered in the summer months.

Yes. My experience is there’s always been an interest in gardening, but we’ve gone through phases. I started in the early ’80s, and back then there was a lot of interest in gardening. A lot of interest is generational. Definitely in the last three to four years it seems like people have taken more of an interest in growing their own food. They want to know where their food comes from. We’ve seen more novices, young people, come to us with questions about starting a vegetable garden. And I hadn’t seen that for a number of years.

Why do you think that is?

They want to be healthier. They want to know where their food comes from.

Do you offer classes here at CCE?

We do. We have an awful lot of contact with home gardeners and gardening enthusiasts over the years that know that we are a research-based objective source of information. For kids, we have “Ready, Set, Grow” here in the greenhouse.

What kind of population do you serve in Niagara County?

We’re a mix of rural, urban and everything in between, so our resources are focused in lots of different ways. Certainly agriculture is a very important thing, but we do a tremendous amount of youth education through our 4-H program. We get out in urban communities. We have one grant called Creating Healthy Places, which helps to establish community gardens in Niagara Falls.

How is it possible to serve so many individual needs?

We have a very good staff, and everybody has a certain area of specialty. We have people who work in nutrition, and they work with people with lower incomes, youth, seniors, anybody who needs counseling on nutrition education. When it comes to home gardeners and consumers, I can get questions, anything from “What’s wrong with my tree?” to “How can I have a healthy lawn?” Just today I had someone call about ants in their home. I had someone call and ask what hardiness zone we were in so he could order his plants (He adds when asked that we are zone 6.) It varies tremendously, but most of it deals with growing and maintaining plants, whether they be outside or inside.

Do you deal with that same variety of people in your job?

My job is similar to that. I work with home gardeners, which is much of the volume. We estimate that we have somewhat over 2,000 contacts just with home gardeners each year. Others are from professional landscapers, greenhouse growers. We get questions during the year from exterminators and arborists. I have also worked with some of the people who work in housing authorities – relating to the grounds – also parks superintendents and municipalities.

This is all free?

This is an organization that is supported in a number of ways. We are supported by county tax dollars. We are aggressive at going out and applying for grants that fit into our educational mission. We have self-generating income by renting our buildings (he said of the hall used for events and weddings, and buildings for winter storage.) When people call me, everyone has access. When we do classes, some are free and some we have a modest fee.

What kinds of classes do you offer? Are they all year long?

Yes, all year long. One of the big things we offer is the master gardener program. Master gardeners are people who take a 15-session course on general gardening and horticulture, and when they complete that, there is a volunteer component. They must volunteer 40 hours with our organization. They help us with our public outreach. There’s only so many days that I am available to go out and speak to local gardening groups a year, or sit at a table at the Lewiston Garden Festival, or go to an organization like a school or a church, so these master gardeners act as my right arm to do programs for the public.

What are some of the questions you get regularly?

Most are diagnostic, such as, “Why do I have a bare patch in my lawn? What’s wrong with my tree? What are these bugs in my pantry?” Lately we’ve had more questions that deal with health. Last year, we had an upswing in the number of tick samples people brought to us, which, due to Lyme Disease, is important to note. We think with the mild winters the tick population increased for a number of years. We went from getting three or four people coming in a year to an average of 20 to 25 people. Other questions are for information. That’s why I love this job. It’s problem-solving 101.

It has been a harsh winter. Should we be worried about our gardens?

People are concerned, but plants are resilient. If they are plants that are meant to grow in our environment, then they are a lot tougher than you think. It’s probably too early to know if there’s been any damage. The much bigger risk is not the winter cold, but the frost that comes later in the spring. That was the big problem a few years ago, and we lost our fruit crop. This year it’s been so cold that nothing has advanced. The ground will take awhile to warm up, so we may not have as long as a season, which is not to say that an Indian summer could make up for that.

People can contact Farfaglia, from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, at 433-8839, Ext. 226, or online at ja21@cornell.edu. There are also links on their website to resources at Cornell University and information about classes at www.cceniagaracounty.org