HOOD RIVER, Ore. — Veteran horticulturist Steve Castagnoli is the new director of Oregon State University’s Mid-Columbia Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Hood River.
Castagnoli has worked at the center since 2000, and is well known among the area’s pear and sweet cherry growers. His appointment comes after a tumultuous couple years in which three key people resigned, including the previous superintendent. Tree fruit growers hope the center will stabilize and resume research projects that were interrupted when the people conducting them left.
“I’m very supportive of Steve’s appointment,” said Mike Omeg, a cherry grower in The Dalles who also sits on the Capital Press board of directors. “He understands the tree fruit industry in the Mid-Columbia real well.”
But Omeg warned that Castagnoli has stiff challenges ahead of him, including “staff and funding issues that are profound.”
The center has seen significant turnover. Horticulturist Todd Einhorn, who was doing what growers consider important dwarf root stock research on pears, left to work on apples at Michigan State University. Entomologist Peter Shearer, who had been the research center superintendent, resigned in 2016; he was among the Pacific Northwest’s key researchers on Spotted Wing Drosophila and Brown Marmorated Stink Bugs, two damaging pests. Preston Brown, who managed the center’s 55-acre experimental farm, also quit. And Brian Tuck, whom Castagnoli replaced, rotated back to his post as regional administrator of Extension in Hood River and Wasco counties.
Castagnoli said his first focus will be to rebuild the station’s staffing by filling the vacant horticulture and entomology research positions. He said growers also favor having plant pathology and soil science expertise on staff, but funding is uncertain.
“The budget challenges are pretty severe right now,” he said. The College of Agricultural Sciences supports rebuilding the center’s staffing, “But they have to balance our needs with the needs of the other 11 branch experiment stations and 14 academic departments on campus,” he said.
The Legislature’s budget decisions will determine what happens, he said.
The Mid-Columbia center’s territory envelopes Hood River and Wasco counties and includes markedly diverse agricultural regions. The counties border along the north-south line where Oregon’s climate transitions from wet west to dry east, and orchards in the Hood River Valley grow along a 2,000 foot elevation gain. Pears and sweet cherries are the predominant crops, but there is still some apple production, blueberries and a recent uptick in wine grape acreage. Castagnoli said growers have cooperated with off-station research projects, including some across the Columbia River in Washington’s Klickitat and Skamania counties.
He said the center’s research focus will remain on pears and sweet cherries. The growth in wine grapes doesn’t yet justify allocating research money and time to it, but OSU Extension can help growers, he said. Castagnoli said he has a viticulture background and has worked with some growers in the past.
Castagnoli is optimistic about stabilizing the center’s operations.
“I think I’ve always had real good support from the industry,” he said. “Despite the interruption in research programs, they’re maintaining that support.”