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Elizabeth Garofalo: Fruit Aficionado

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Elizabeth Garofalo, fruit extension educator
November 30, 2021

Growing up in Buckland, Elizabeth Garofalo remembers experiencing three distinct seasons while walking through  the orchard just down the road from her home: In spring, tractors mowed fields; summer brought fruit easily plucked from low-hanging branches; and a “lovely elderly woman” invited her to climb the apple trees in fall. The seasonal rhythms were already deeply engrained for Garofalo, thanks to time spent on her grandparents’ dairy farm, where the love of the land connected her family across generations. Like that country road, Garofalo’s journey from the farm to University of Massachusetts Extension Fruit Program educator has been long, rewarding, and a bit unexpected.

Coming Home to the Land

Before landing at UMass, Garofalo worked in restaurants, travelled extensively, and joined the U.S. Air Force after the events of September 11, 2001. Her path eventually led her home to Massachusetts where an introductory horticultural class at Greenfield Community College brought her life and agricultural upbringing into focus, leading to an “aha” moment as she realized that she was ready to come full circle, returning to the plants, the soil, the land.

After her time at GCC, Garofalo went on to earn her associate’s degree at the Stockbridge School of Agriculture in sustainable food and farming, followed by a bachelor’s degree in plant soil and insect science. She then went on to earn a master’s degree while working with Dan Cooley at Cold Spring Orchard in plant pathology, where her research focused on a fruit fungal disease called apple scab – a bane of apple growers. “During much of her program, she also worked part-time for UMass Extension,” Cooley said, “helping farmers to manage insect and disease problems in crops using integrated pest management, an environmentally sound approach.”

In early 2020, drawing on her natural creativity, Garofalo produced an audio version of the Extension Fruit Team’s online Healthy Fruit newsletter, after her co-worker, Jim Cronk, mentioned that it would be easier to listen to the newsletter when working on the tractor. The UMass IPM Fruit Loop podcast was launched shortly thereafter and is now available here. Garofalo (aka “Hawkeye”) hosts this format includes music and jokes in a condensed version of the newsletter. Extension colleagues Jon Clements, Duane Greene, Dan Cooley, and Jaime Pinero are all contributors to the show.

On the Move Through Massachusetts

Garofalo loves her outreach work, where no day is “typical.” It’s not uncommon for her to hop in her car and drive to two or three farms as far-flung as Boston or Cape Cod, or visit growers right in her backyard of Greenfield or Deerfield. One day may bring a cider apple assessment in Amesbury, checking samples of fruit for sugar content or maturity. The next, she may be advising growers such as Carlson Orchard in Harvard about the ideal time to harvest their crop to maximize the production of their signature hard cider. In addition to these one-on-one visits, she also helps to create decision-making frameworks and tools for farmers from the North Shore to the Berkshires, which support growers in learning how to make these types of decisions on their own. One of these tools, a hand-held device, enables farmers to measure fruit sugar levels, and to create a set of data for cider apple growers in Mass to use to determine harvest parameters in the future.

Beyond harvest issues, her work also includes advising famers on how to manage challenging diseases such as apple scab, bitter rot, or powdery mildew. During the dormant season when things quiet down on the farms, winter education kicks into high gear. Garofalo is glad to be able to reach a wide audience using virtual meeting tools like Zoom, now that a general familiarity with these tools has been reached.  Along with her colleagues across Extension, the UMass Extension Fruit Program team is offering a wide variety of specific educational webinars via Zoom on topics that include harvest storage issues, blueberry diseases, and more. In fact, the Northeast Fruit Consortium's 2022 Winter Webinar Series was recently announced, featuring a broad range of topics. During these webinars, team members lead specific sessions, which are recorded and made available. Garofalo proudly shares the fact the webinars have had as many as 170 attendees, including growers from Massachusetts, throughout New England, Canada, and even South Africa.

Regarding her future plans, Garofalo says, “Right now, my goal is to continue to work with Extension, stay with the fruit team and maybe someday, I will get my Ph.D.” Given her drive and interests, that seems like something to bet the farm on.