IN 1972, Dr. Ben Wesenberg of the Washington State Cooperative Extension Service didn't think much about supply-side economics. Budget cuts didn't threaten staff shortages. Information booklets were given away free without a twinge of conscience.

But 10 years ago, with the boom in home gardening, he began to realize that extension horticulturists could not keep up with the plethora of questions concerning vegetable growing and landscaping. So Wesenberg and his associates devised a way to barter gardening lessons for volunteer time in a program that is now known as "master gardeners."

Cooperative Extension is a tax-supported service established by Congress in 1914 to "extend" the education of land grant colleges to virtually every county in the country. Traditionally, extension agents served a predominantly rural population, disseminating the latest in agricultural research to farmers. The 4-H program brought similar information to elementary and high school students. Homemakers learned sewing and cooking from local home economists.

But the population has grown and shifted since the extension service was established. Today only 25 percent of Americans live in rural areas. As a result, many county agents now serve urban populations whose needs are very different from those envisioned back in 1914. These days, agents are called on to teach everything from survival skills to latch-key children (how not to answer the door) and techniques for balcony gardening to sewing on UltraSuede and cooking with microwaves.

And as the range of services has expanded to accommodate these diverse and growing needs, agents have found themselves spread thin trying to keep up with the demand. "Master gardeners" help solve the problem by dealing with common and simple questions that reach peak levels during the summer gardening season. Thus, extension agents have the time to deal with more technical and complicated problems.

Today, Washington State horticulture specialists have trained 700 "master gardeners" who have each donated at least 60 hours to answer telephones, lead seminars and talk to civic groups about horticulture. Wesenberg estimates that 220,000 contacts were made last year by the volunteers in Washington State alone. Forty of the volunteers have stayed See MASTERS, E18, Col. 5 Advice From The Masters MASTERS, From E1 with the program since its conception.

And the program has spread--33 states now have master gardening programs, including Virginia, the District of Columbia and Maryland. Washington State has produced the first master gardener textbook, and Wesenberg will travel to Canada next month to speak to Canadian agents about the program.

The concept has grown, too. Master gardening has turned into "master home repair" and "master shopper." "Master food preserver" programs teach volunteers the principles of freezing, drying and canning food. This year's pilot master-preserver program in southern Maryland involved 30 volunteers who spent three days in training and will donate 30 hours this summer to give jam-making demonstrations at "pick-your-own" farms, assist agents in preserving demonstrations, run a booth at the Montgomery County Fair in August and answer telephone calls at the county offices.

Home economists from five offices in Northern Virginia (Loudoun, Prince William, Arlington, Alexandria and Fairfax) just completed their second master preserver program. Nancy Pfafflin, extension home economist in Alexandria, says the 30 volunteers will each spend 36 hours this summer answering food preservation questions and giving "mini" preserving lessons to small groups of people who want semi-private lessons in food preservation. (Interested cooks must provide the equipment, fresh produce and a kitchen, either private or institutional.)

When Pfafflin teaches a canning workshop, the two volunteers who assist save her time by assembling much of the equipment beforehand. In addition, they can circulate among class participants to give each one more personal attention, answering more questions, instilling more confidence.

"The whole master program extends the resources of extension by using the services of trained volunteers," says Prince William home economist Marilyn Grizzard, who adds that they are trying to involve more people by offering more classes and workshops. "We can advertise a lot more that we have a service available because we have trained volunteers who are capable and can give reliable information."

These volunteers will help extend the services of two Prince William home economists to the 150,000 people in the county. "If we can train 10, 20, 50 volunteers," says Grizzard, "it's 10, 20, 50 times the number of people we can serve."

Rather than volunteering for altruistic reasons, most of the masters are people who want to develop expertise in their avocation. But once they get started, says Washington State's Wesenberg, many end up donating three or four times the required hours "because they find it so rewarding. Some donate 300 hours."