Lazaneo says people often express confusion about the Cooperative Extension. “It’s really a cooperative program between three levels of government, which is quite unique in the United States, or anywhere. Typically, if you go to any organization, it’s either federal, state, county, local, or private.” In contrast, “We do this balancing act here.”
He says the concept originated at the beginning of the 20th Century, when Congress saw a need for research to improve America’s agricultural practices. So federal legislators permitted the states to sell federal land in order to raise the money to start colleges where agricultural studies would be conducted. Some years later, Lazaneo recounts, the lawmakers realized that knowledge being developed at the “land-grant” colleges wasn’t reaching the farmers. So Congress created the Agricultural Extension service (later renamed Cooperative Extension) to help disseminate the research findings.
Lazaneo says today there are Cooperative Extension programs in every state. “It’s become a very successful model that many other countries in the world have tried to copy.” San Diegans often assume that the office is part of UCSD, but this is incorrect. “We’re part of the university’s statewide system.” The administrative headquarters is located in Oakland. State money pays the salaries of all the “farm and home advisors,” while the federal government contributes funds to support specific programs. The County of San Diego provides a building (at the County Operations Center at the end of Overland Avenue in Kearny Mesa), along with secretarial support, supplies, and county cars.
When he was hired to work in this office in 1977, it already had farm advisers who specialized in commercial floriculture, avocados and citrus, vegetables, landscape trees, and other subjects. But Lazaneo was the first person ever given the job of communicating University of California research findings exclusively to home gardeners. Unfortunately, he “had a couple of episodes of the [eye] disease, and in 1980, it actually caused enough damage in my right eye — which was the only eye I was seeing out of at that time — that it caused the retina to detach.” Rendered totally blind, Lazaneo says he got “mobility training,” and his doctors also took another hard look at the eye that had been damaged in his explosives accident. They found “there was a little bit of retina still functional, so they did a cornea transplant and allowed the light to get in, so I could see a little bit with that.”
He could no longer discern the shapes of letters, but the university agreed to provide him with assistance so he could continue to do his work. Three women share the job of serving as his reader. Two days a week, Joanna McClure attends to this. A good-natured, energetic woman with short dark hair, McClure first met Lazaneo when her husband, Lew Gary, enrolled in the Master Gardener class of 1989. Gary had retired the previous year, and he and McClure were up to their ears in a gardening project. In 1985, they had moved into a new home at the end of a cul-de-sac in Rancho Bernardo. It sat on compacted fill. “You couldn’t dig anywhere without a pick or a digging bar,” McClure says. When she and Gary hacked their way into the hard, barren clay, they discovered an amazing assortment of rubbish.
Today in the compact front yard, a riot of roses, irises, daylilies, and various annuals erupt under an eastern redbud tree, while an ornamental plum tree shelters a rock garden planted with succulents. The lot is shaped like a slice of pie, much bigger in the back, and there McClure and Gary have created an exuberant horticultural wonderland. Thirty or 40 camellias fill one long bed on the north side of the house, while three or four times that many rosebushes thrive all over the property. Hanging baskets hold rat-tail cactus, hoyas, and epiphyllum. Other containers cradle epidendrums, a tiny orchid that hummingbirds adore. In two ponds, fish live among grasses, zephyr lilies, papyrus. About five years ago, Gary added a complicated modeltrain layout that runs around the ponds and through the back yard. “We like whimsy, so there’s a lot of little things going on,” McClure acknowledges. At one point, for example, the track passes a miniature farmhouse, complete with tiny laundry hanging on a tiny clothesline. Nearby a little plastic wolf chases a little plastic cat, which in turn is chasing a little plastic bird. McClure has planted bonsai — Japanese elm, leptospermum — and the scale matches the scale of the model trains. Every May, columbines spring up and tower over the scene.
A former middle school vice principal, McClure retired in mid-1996, after that year’s Master Gardener class had already started. She enrolled in the next one (held in 1999), but by then she had already begun working for Lazaneo, a situation she describes as the ultimate educational experience. “What’s in the man’s mind is tremendous,” she comments. “We’re all in awe.”
As his reader, “You’re his hands and his eyes. Like for example, he gets a telephone call and he’ll say to me, ‘Would you look under such and such?’ I’ll pull it out, and he’ll ask, ‘What does that say regarding management?’ So I’ll read that to him. Then he’ll ask me to make a couple of copies and get material together to be mailed out.” Or McClure will read website screens aloud. Longer material, like books, she sometimes takes home and records on tape.
Tape recorders have become a powerful tool in Lazaneo’s mangled hands, according to Gary. When the gardening adviser lectures, he dons a headset connected to a tape recorder that holds his notes. On his desk at work, he relies upon similar aids. “When you sit at your desk, you’re looking at your computer screen or you’re looking at reference material,” Gary says, explaining that Lazaneo, in contrast, knows what’s on each tape in each of the three machines on his desk. “He’ll say, ‘Oh, So-and-So called,’ and he goes and touches this tape recorder and he finds that message.”