Tight budget spreads OSU extension thin
'Sometimes it feels like we're in the last-man-standing club'
By MITCH LIES
Years ago, when Oregon State University extension agents retired, they were usually replaced, said Bryan Ostlund, an executive of several agricultural trade organizations.
"But somebody stopped putting the new personnel on the conveyor belt," Ostlund said. "All of a sudden, it is just blank behind these guys."
Three Willamette Valley extension agents retired Dec. 31, leaving gaps in the extension service's coverage of prominent Oregon crops, including Christmas trees and grass seed.
"Sometimes it feels like we're in the last-man-standing club," said Ostlund, who heads Christmas tree, blueberry and grass seed organizations. "You look around and you think, who is going to be left?"
The loss of Benton County forestry extension agent Rick Fletcher leaves Christmas tree growers with one agent, down from three that worked at least part-time in Christmas trees a year ago.
The loss of Linn County field crops extension agent Mark Mellbye, who had been part-time since 2008, leaves grass seed growers with two agents. And it leaves Linn County, the nation's top grass seed-producing county, with no grass seed agent.
The loss of Mellbye "is leading to a loss of institutional memory," Ostlund said, "particularly in Linn County."
Grass seed also has lost several researchers in recent years. Bill Young, extension grass seed specialist, scaled back to part-time last year. Soil scientist John Hart and entomologist Glenn Fisher, both of whom also have worked extensively in grass seed, also are part-time.
"With that much land in agriculture in that county, it would seem like it would be a good idea for public policy in the state of Oregon to have the science background within that county," Ostlund said.
The loss of Diane Kaufman, an associate professor working in berries, leaves strawberry growers with just one specialist.
University officials said they have no immediate plans to replace any of the agents.
"We're needing to accommodate a reduction in budget coming at us the last two bienniums," said Bill Boggess, executive associate dean of Oregon State University's College of Agricultural Sciences. "So when somebody retires or leaves, we haven't been filling nearly as many positions as we would have liked, and we have holes in just about any area you want to talk about."
Ostlund characterized OSU's support of the Christmas tree industry as "anemic."
"I think it is unfortunate that Oregon tree growers are sending money up to Washington to do research, because we can't do it at our own land-grant school," said Joe Sharp, managing partner of Yule Tree Farms in Aurora, Ore.
"We're now left with one guy," Sharp said. "It is kind of a statement about Oregon's attitude about the industry, as far as I'm concerned."
By contrast, North Carolina has between 8 and 10 extension agents dedicated to Christmas trees, Ostlund said. The state competes with Oregon for Christmas tree sales.
Extension agent Mike Bondi discontinued his work in Christmas trees in August after he was appointed head of the North Willamette Research and Extension Center. Bondi, who also is regional administrator for Clackamas County extension, is one of four regional extension administrators who are doubling as experiment station directors.
"I would like to do more in the forestry area," Bondi said. "But now that's not my assignment."
Research also is suffering in Central and Eastern Oregon.
Brian Tuck, who doubles as experiment station director and regional extension administrator in Hood River and Wasco counties, said farmers in those two counties are not getting the support they once did.
"There used to be five scientists at the Mid-Columbia Agricultural Research and Extension Center (in Hood River)," Tuck said. "Now there are three.
"That has created some serious gaps," Tuck said.
And, he said, it has changed the way extension helps growers. An agent formerly went to a farm to assess a crop problem, but today a farmer will take a picture and e-mail it to an agent, Tuck said.
"You want someone to come out and talk to you about ways to deal with issues," Tuck said. "That one-on-one has been a hallmark of extension over the years.
"But that just isn't possible any more in many circumstances," Tuck said.