Journal of the NACAA
ISSN 2158-9429
Volume 11, Issue 2 - December, 2018


The Impacts of Improving a County Based Plant and Pest Diagnostic Clinic

Barrett, E. E., Assistant Professor, Ohio State University Extension


Operating a county based plant and pest diagnostic clinic is an effective way to utilize the skills of trained Master Gardener Volunteers (MGV) while extending the reach of Extension programming. A review of existing clinic procedures was conducted to improve practices and impacts. The review indicated the need for volunteer training and other improvements to enhance service to clientele and to increase utilization of MGVs. A plan was developed and implemented by Extension staff and MGVs. As a result of the changes, the number of questions answered through the clinic increased 273% over the six-year period from 2011 to 2017, expanding opportunities for volunteer service. A survey of clinic volunteers reported a mean improvement of 1.7 points (on a 5-point scale) in confidence in answering questions from the public as a result of the changes.


Utilizing Master Gardener Volunteers (MGVs) has long been touted as a method of reaching out to more clientele (Grieshop and Rupley, 1984). OSU Extension in Mahoning County, Ohio, utilized MGVs to operate a plant and pest diagnostic clinic using this idea of extending the reach of Extension staff to meet the needs of more clientele.

At the end of 2011, MGVs were giving volunteer time two days a week from April through October to answer gardening questions from the public. With a population of over 235,000, the clinic served just 378 clientele and many questions were directed to the county educator.

A change in staffing in early 2012 lead to new questions about the management of the volunteer program and the purpose of the plant and pest clinic. The issues of concern focused on the limited volunteer time dedicated to the clinic, the high number of questions answered by staff, and the accuracy of answers given by volunteers. Staff included an educator, a part-time program assistant and a support staff member. To address the issues of concern, a plan was developed to improve the clinic.



Review of Existing Clinic Operations

A review of the volunteer operated clinic was completed in early 2012. This review included four parts: 1) collecting existing data focusing on clinic operations management from completed clinic forms and MGV response data, 2) analyzing existing volunteer training curriculum, 3) evaluating clinic forms and procedures for accuracy, and 4) personal interviews with staff and volunteers to obtain additional details on clinic operations.

Existing data used in the review included compiling information from existing clinic forms, comparing the number of questions answered by staff compared to the number of questions answered by volunteers. Volunteer and staff hours were not previously recorded and were estimated by comparing calendars provided by volunteers and staff.

The analysis of volunteer training included reviewing agendas from MGV training classes and minutes from MGV monthly meetings to gauge how and when trainings were conducted. Clinic volunteers were asked about informal trainings during clinic hours.

Clinic forms and procedures were examined. Information collected on the forms included customer name, address, phone, and email. Three areas to put information for clientele included: symptoms, diagnosis and information provided. Analysis of the forms found that most forms were not completed correctly. Some questions were not answered because not enough information from the client was noted on the form.

A meeting of staff and volunteers was conducted to gather details of clinic operations. There were 54 active MGVs in 2012, with eleven indicating they worked in the clinic. These eleven volunteers were invited to the meeting. The group discussed general, open ended questions about clinic operations and their suggestions for improvement. Staff and volunteers thought the clinic was one of the most important services provide by MGVs. All participants agreed that more organization was needed to help improve the clinic. Lack of consistent clinic informational delivery standards was cited as a major issue.  

Developing a Plan for Improvement

The review of the findings indicated a significant amount of Extension staff time was involved in the clinic for the number of questions answered. The staff time included staff answering many of the questions and staff training volunteers during clinic hours.

The initial review indicated volunteer training was the most important need for continued operation of the clinic. This is consistent with prior research on master gardener training. Smith et al. (2004) found that multiple trainings provided opportunities for volunteers to practice their skills and improved their confidence over time. This research was the motivation to offer multiple trainings throughout the year as part of the plan to improve the clinic.

Existing research was reviewed as part of the process of developing the improvement plan. Konen and Horton (2000) suggested that using hands-on activities to train teachers is helpful and improves confidence in those being trained; thus training scenarios based on actual clinic questions were incorporated into the improvement plan. VanDerZanden (2001) found that utilizing existing MGVs to teach is an effective way to deliver certain trainings for new volunteers, supporting the plan to use current volunteers as part of the new training program.

In addition to the need for improved training, volunteers felt they were not recognized as significant contributors to county programming for their service in the clinic. Stillwell et al. (2010) found that recognition was vital to sustaining volunteers in their volunteer roles, supporting a need for more recognition of volunteers working in the clinic.

Implementing the Plan

The review led to the writing and adoption of the following plan for improvement of operations, which was implemented in the summer of 2012.

  1. Diagnostic Scenarios – Extension staff will develop scenarios from actual questions to use in training volunteers.
  2. Initial Training – New MGV interns (volunteers in training) will receive clinic training during the initial MGV course and MGV interns would be required to work some of their first 50 volunteer hours in the clinic.
  3. Advanced Training – Current MGVs will receive detailed hands-on training during the growing season, including one-on-one training with a mentor.
  4. Position Descriptions – Extension staff will develop detailed tasks and time requirements for clinic volunteers.
  5. Incentives – MGVs will receive yearly incentives for working in the clinic in addition to recognition at the annual banquet.
  6. New Data Forms – Volunteers and staff will review current forms, improving ability to capture client information and enhance the detail received from clientele.
  7. Mailing Slips Branded response slips will be developed to include with the information given to clientele, adding a personal touch to responses and increasing OSU Extension brand recognition.
  8. Soil testing – In response to clientele questions, a new soil testing service will be added, which will also serve as a source of revenue to improve equipment and resources.
  9. Clinic reviews – Annual reviews will be conducted to gain input from staff and volunteers.


After the implementation of the plan in 2012, an annual clinic review was established to provide details for continuous improvement. However, this initial review process only used anecdotal information relating to how volunteers improved due to the planning process. To assess the impact on volunteers working in the clinic, a survey was conducted in 2018 to gauge the impacts of the long-term plan implementation on volunteer confidence and satisfaction.

In the 2018 survey, volunteers were asked about their longevity in the clinic and how often they worked in the clinic. Questions focused on the usefulness of different types of trainings, confidence in answering questions, most useful resources, impacts and ideas for improvement.


Results and Discussion

Results of Plan Implementation

Since implementing the operational plan and new processes in 2012, the clinic has seen a dramatic increase in demand for clinic services. As a result of the changes, the number of questions answered through the clinic increased 273% over the six-year period from 2011 to 2017. Volunteer hours dedicated to the clinic increased from 223 in 2011 to 1,054 in 2017 (Table 1).


Table 1. Volunteer hours and client contacts by year.

 Year Volunteer Hours Total Clinic Contacts
 2011 223 378
 2012 429 548
 2013 428 677
 2014 434 852
 2015 539 821
 2016 1042 922
 2017 1054 1033



Soil testing was implemented as a service in 2012. For a fee, the clinic offers instructions on soil sampling, completes lab forms for clients, mails samples, and interprets lab results. Eighty two samples were processed in 2012 and increased to 193 in 2017. The fees from soil testing helped purchase a $1,500 microscope, additional computers, diagnostic tools, resource books and other supplies for clinic operations. This increase in clinic contacts shows that the community has come to rely on the clinic as a dependable source for accurate answers to their plant and pest questions

New client request forms were created in 2012, expanding the form to two pages in order to get more detailed information from clients. The forms are improved each year as part of the clinic review process. The current form provides detailed information for clinic volunteers to assist with answering clientele questions (Figure 1). It also provides detailed information for data entry for the clinic (Figure 2).


Figure 1. Page one of clinic form to be completed by clientele.



Figure 2. Page two of clinic form to be completed by clinic volunteer.


Annual clinic reviews were part of the initial plan and were completed by staff in 2012 and 2013. The clinic review is  held at the end of each year to discuss operations and gain input from volunteers and staff for continued improvement. These reviews help staff and volunteers get to the real issues of clinic operations. Starting in 2014, the task of completing the annual clinic review was given to a newly-designated volunteer chairperson. Transferring the responsibility for completing the clinic review to a volunteer resulted in a more open discussion and fostered volunteer ownership of clinic operations.

The following improvements were implemented based on written clinic reviews.

  • MGVs teach all clinic trainings starting in 2015.
  • New equipment purchases are based on volunteer needs.
  • New procedures and flow charts for clinic operations were developed by volunteers.
  • MGV Interns are required to work in the clinic as part of their first 50 hours requirement.


Volunteer Impact

Ninety-nine active MGVs were surveyed, with 47 MGVs responding. Twenty eight of the 47 MGVs responding answered they did work in the clinic and were prompted to continue to complete the entire survey. The survey asked a series of questions relating to their service in the clinic, the usefulness of trainings, and their confidence in answering questions from the public.

Twenty-seven volunteers responded to questions relating to their confidence in answering questions from the public (Table 2). Before training, nearly a third (29.6%) of the volunteers responding were not confident in their ability to answer questions from the public, with 40.7% describing themselves as “slightly confident”. None ranked themselves as “extremely confident.” Following training and work in the clinic, volunteers reported a mean improvement of 1.7 (based on a five-point scale) in their confidence in answering questions from the public.  All volunteers ranked themselves as “somewhat confident” or higher, with 66.7% describing themselves as “very” or “extremely confident” in their ability to answer questions from the public.


Table 2. Comparison of confidence ratings before and after working in the clinic (N = 27). Mean calculated from responses to the scale, 1 = not confident, 2 = slightly confident, 3 = somewhat confident, 4 = very confident, 5 = extremely confident.


Not Confident

Slightly Confident

Somewhat Confident

Very Confident

Extremely Confident

Please rate your confidence in answering questions from the public BEFORE working in the clinic. 2.11 29.6% 40.7% 18.5% 11.1% 0.0%
Please rate your confidence in answering questions from the public AFTER working in the clinic. 3.81 0.0% 0.0% 33.3% 51.9% 14.8%



In addition to the formal and advanced volunteer training sessions, volunteers could receive one-on-one mentor training during their work in the clinic. Of the 99 MGVs surveyed, twenty-five MGVs responded to questions rating the trainings. This one-on-one mentor training was rated somewhat higher than group trainings (Table 3). Volunteers rated the usefulness of one-on-one trainings with mentors during clinic operating hours as very useful or extremely useful by 92% of volunteers responding to the survey. Group trainings were rated as very useful or extremely useful by 87.5% of volunteers responding to the survey.


Table 3. Comparison of different types of trainings offered for clinic volunteers (n = 25). Mean calculated from responses to the scale, 1 = not confident, 2 = slightly confident, 3 = somewhat confident, 4 = very confident, 5 = extremely confident.
  Mean Not Useful Slightly Useful Somewhat Useful Very Useful Extremely Useful
How would you rate the usefulness of the group clinic trainings offered? 4.25 0.0% 0.0% 12.5% 50.0% 37.5%
How would you rate the usefulness of one-on-one trainings with mentors during clinic operating hours? 4.36 0.0% 0.0% 8.0% 48.0% 44.0%



Survey results indicated that learning how to research questions was the most important thing volunteers learned from working in the clinic. When asked to rate the resources in the order they are most helpful in answering questions from the public, clinic volunteers rated university bulletins and factsheets as their number one source of information, followed by extension staff.



A comprehensive review of existing clinic operations resulted in a plan to improve operations that was implemented over six years ago. The implemented changes resulted in a two-fold increase in the number of volunteer hours and clients served by the third year. Volunteer training, recognition and annual clinic reviews are important components of the continuous improvement achieved.

Volunteers in Utah recommended diagnostic learning opportunities as a way to improve the MGV program (Wagner, 2012). This recommendation was implemented and holds true in Mahoning County, Ohio, as MGVs use their continued diagnostic training to work in the county based plant and pest clinic. These skills are used to continue to increase the number of contacts each year. As a result of training, volunteers report improved confidence in their ability to correctly answer questions from the public. Furthermore, Mahoning County MGVs receive requests from other counties to assist with clinic trainings for their MGVs. Mahoning County MGVs held a state-wide training in 2018 to train county educators and MGVs on effective clinic operations.

Overall, improvement of clinic operations led to less staff time dedicated to the clinic, more volunteer involvement in the clinic and more volunteers directly involved in extending the reach of extension programming.


Literature Cited

Grieshop, J. and Rupley, V. (1984). How do you spell relief? Master gardening! Journal of Extension [On-line], 22(4) Article 4FEA3. Available at:

Konen, J. and Horton, R.L. (2000). Beneficial science teacher training. Journal of Extension [On-line], 38(2) Article 2RIB1. Available at:

Smith, M.H., Meehan, C.L., Enfield, R.P., George, J.L. , and Young, J.C. (2004). Improving county-based science programs: Bringing out the science teacher in your volunteer leaders. Journal of Extension 42(6), Article 6FEA5. Available at:

Stillwell, M, Culp III, K, and Hunter, K. (2010). The volunteer recognition program model: Providing volunteer recognition throughout the year. Journal of Extension 48(3), Article 3TOT2. Available at:

VanDerZanden, A. (2001). Ripple effect training: Multiplying Extension's resources with veteran Master Gardeners as MG Trainers. Journal of Extension [On-line], 39(3) Article 3RIB1. Available at:

Wagner, K. (2012). Timeline Detailing the Restructuring of a Dysfunctional Master Gardener Program in Salt Lake County. Journal of the NACAA 5(2). Available at: