OSU, growers use creative methods to help keep agents on the ground
By MITCH LIES
CORVALLIS, Ore. -- With one field crop extension agent serving the Willamette Valley, administrators at Oregon State University are quick to acknowledge glaring gaps in the services they provide to growers.
But with their budget sliced 30 percent in the past 10 years, College of Agricultural Science leaders said filling those gaps is easier said than done.
Administrators said recently they hope to fill some of the gaps through creative funding, such as donations from commodity groups and the creation of extension service tax districts.
First up in a spreadsheet of short- and long-term personnel plans is filling a south Willamette Valley position to help with grass seed and grain production. Administrators hope to name a south valley agent in the next few weeks.
The position has been vacant since former Linn County agent Mark Mellbye retired in January. Prior to that, Mellbye worked three years as a part-time agent.
On July 1, grass seed and grain growers also lost their mid-valley agent when Tom Silberstein left as Marion County Extension agent to join the Marion Soil and Water Conservation District. Silberstein continues to work a quarter-time extension position in Clackamas County and works with Marion County growers on issues related to soil and water conservation.
The loss of Silberstein and Mellbye left growers with one field crop agent in the Willamette Valley, north valley agent Nicole Anderson.
Russ Karow, head of the OSU's Department of Crop and Soil Science, said administrators hope ultimately to fill the three valley positions.
In the short-term, Karow said, the college plans to use two agents, splitting the valley into three sections. Anderson is responsible for Washington and Yamhill counties and the northern half of Polk County. The new south valley agent will be responsible for Linn and Benton counties and the southern half of Polk County.
That leaves Marion and Clackamas counties hanging in the mid-valley, Karow said.
"People will answer the phones (in the mid-valley). We'll have a couple of grower meetings each year," Karow said. "But we're not going to do field visits and things like that in the short term."
"The long-term plan is to have north-, mid-, south-valley (positions) because of the different cropping systems that you have in each one of those areas," Karow said.
Karow said the department has been forced to make tough decisions in recent years as budget cuts depleted its resources.
"If you go back to the early 2000s versus now, we're down 30 to 40 percent both in dollars and numbers of people," Karow said.
A result, Karow said, are some notable gaps in service.
Karow said the college is more apt to fill positions when industry or a county steps up with funding.
More than 20 counties in Oregon have formed taxing districts to help fund extension, he said.
Also in recent years, commodity groups such as the wheat and potato commissions have donated funds to ensure the college stays attuned to their needs. Wheat growers recently put $300,000 toward the college and potato growers put $150,000 to the college.
"We're seeing more of these kinds of relationships where somebody else is providing funding for extension and research activities that folks are interested in having done," Karow said.
In Malheur County, voters recently passed a measure to create a tax district to directly fund research and extension services. The measure is the first of its kind in Oregon. All other tax districts support extension activities by paying support costs.
The Malheur Extension Service recently hired a new agent, Stuart Reitz, to work with onion and potato growers. The college plans soon to begin advertising for a second agent to work on alfalfa, grain, corn and other field crops.
In Coos and Curry counties, commissioners agreed recently to another unique arrangement by putting some of their taxing district funds toward the salary of crops extension agent Linda White.
Though White recently left to take a position with the Oregon Department of Agriculture, college administrators said they intend to refill her position.
"We're trying to keep it at least at the same level that it has been," said Bill Braunworth, interim head of the college's horticultural department and former extension program leader.
Asked if the region's commitment to White's salary plays a role in whether the college refills the position, Braunworth said: "Yes, it is a strong reason to fill the position with the way they have upped the ante, so to speak, by putting some of their money into the salary."