It's hard enough getting 3-year-olds to eat their vegetables. Teaching them to grow their own might seem impossible.

But master gardeners like Dana Freeman are trying.

Freeman volunteers for the Growing Together program, which started in May. Freeman and a few other master gardeners, certified by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension, build and maintain teaching gardens at child care centers to help kids learn where food comes from with the hope that they might develop good eating habits as a form of obesity prevention.

"The push is to get kids tasting and trying foods, to get them learning about foods even earlier," Freeman said. "Day cares are kind of the hot new place to try."

Each week, Freeman, 35, and another master gardener, Pam Anderson, visit Bergan Mercy Child Development and Diapers 2 Diplomas to help kids water plants, check for pests, pull weeds or do other gardening tasks. Lately, they've been picking and eating green beans, tomatoes, onions, herbs and more.

It's a small part of Freeman's larger job as a master gardener. Most weeks, she spends about 10 hours donating her time to serve as a horticultural resource for the community, answering questions and lending a hand where needed.

2015 INTERNATIONAL MASTER GARDENER CONFERENCE

When: Continues today through Friday

Where: Mid-America Center, Council Bluffs

Hosted by: University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension and Iowa State University Extension and Outreach

Workshop tracks: Midwest flavor, horizons, from the ground up, professional development, design, working with community

More info: mastergardener.unl. edu/imgc2015

She answers phones on a horticulture helpline, gives gardeners tips at "Ask a Master Gardener" tables, develops questions for the master gardener test, mentors master gardeners and helps at the Heartland of America Park Sustainable Demonstration Garden, in addition to giving speeches and other odds and ends. Over the past year, she has scouted and coordinated speakers for the 2015 International Master Gardener Conference, which starts today at the Mid-America Center and ends Friday.

The biannual conference comes to the Omaha metro area for the first time and is hosted jointly by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension and Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. Info sessions, keynote speakers and more will help over 700 master gardeners from about 40 different states, in addition to more from Canada and South Korea, sharpen their skills.

"It's a conference arranged by master gardeners for master gardeners," said Kathleen Cue, master gardener program coordinator. Most of the presenters and attendees come from around the region to fill their brains with new research-based information.

To become a master gardener, applicants must take a class, pass a test and volunteer. In Douglas and Sarpy Counties, the requirement is a minimum of 50 hours of education and 40 hours of volunteering. Each year, they have to follow up with at least 10 more hours of education and 40 hours of volunteering.

They learn plenty about plants, pests and more, but the experience helps them learn how to work with people, more than anything.

"It would be easy to think we're there for plants, but we're not," Freeman said. "We're there for people."

Freeman became a master gardener in 2013, following the lead of her mother, Sue Freeman. The two joined the program at the same time. Sue gravitated toward hands-on things like the Horticulture Helpline, "Ask a Master Gardener," and other events like "Water Works" and Christmas tree recycling. Dana likes to take on projects.

When Dana Freeman was younger, she used to play around in her mother's garden and help pluck bugs from potato plants. Her father would smash the bugs underneath his boot; she would follow in his footsteps by stomping cucumber beetles in Gifford Park.

While away in Philadelphia for college, she observed a first-grade class. A teacher asked her students, "Where does milk come from?" One answered, "Wawa," a convenience store.

"It never occurred to me that people didn't know that," she said. That moment helped her realize how her family's farming and gardening was a piece of her heritage.

When she returned to Omaha, she became the garden director of the Gifford Park Youth Garden, a role she held from 2007 to 2011 before becoming director of the Gifford Park Community Garden from 2011 to 2013. There, she taught school-age kids how to garden.

It wasn't her first experience working with kids — she worked with youths in Omaha and at Bryn Mawr College and served as a nanny for an autistic child in Pennsylvania — but it was her first real chance to help young people in a gardening context.

Every Monday at Bergan and Wednesday at Diapers 2 Diplomas, she meets with classes of a dozen or so kids. They grab little milk jugs, about the size of a container of cream, and fill them with water to nourish the plants.

At some gardens in the program, bug specialists will teach the kids about garden pests, and nutritionists will show them how to take what they grow and make it into familiar foods.

When she first heard about the program, Bergan preschool teacher Cheryl Ziemba said she was worried and imagined master gardeners being "a little aloof." But as soon as they arrived and started working with the kids, that attitude changed.

"They're just the nicest, nicest people and help figure out problems," she said.

Freeman is noticing the kids forming mental roots. They understand some basic things about where their food comes from, and they're enthusiastic.

"They ask questions about their own gardens, and that's exciting to me, to think that they're going to continue," she said. "They're proud, all of these kids, they're so proud of all of this stuff."

Contact the writer: 402-444-1734, chris.peters@owh.com, twitter.com/_ChrisPeters

"It would be easy to think we're there for plants, but we're not. We're there for people."

Dana Freeman, master gardener

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