Economist ready to return to research, teaching at OSU
By MITCH LIES
AURORA, Ore. -- Four years ago, when Clark Seavert started as superintendent of the North Willamette Research and Extension Center, he was told to fix the budget.
"The budget was very unclear as to where the moneys came in and where they went out," Seavert said.
Seavert, an agricultural economist, took the directive "to the Nth degree," as he put it.
Two years later, he received a different directive.
"In an annual evaluation, I was asked to take it to the next level," he said. Administration, he said, told him: "OK, you've dissected it. You know what is coming in and going out. Now fix it.
"Well, that takes buy-in," he said.
Seavert formed a steering committee comprised of public and private sector members and set out to develop a strategic plan for the station.
What developed over the ensuing 18 months was tremendously valuable, Seavert said, as much for its result as for the process.
"Through that process, we now have a lot more people educated that there is an extension research budget, first thing," Seavert said, "and that counties fund the extension side and that the state funds the research side.
"I think it was an eye-opening experience for some people," he said.
The station is a long way from filling in the strategic plan, but the planning already is reaping dividends, he said.
"Since our strategic plan, we have received more money from counties, because they now understand what we do, and growers have gone to them and said: 'Hey, we just learned so much money is supposed to go into NWREC from such and such a county, and we haven't been meeting our obligation. How come?'
"So counties have called up and said, 'We'll help you,'" Seavert said.
Seavert recently learned Clackamas County officials are considering a 6-acre solar panel project at the station.
"They were going to put these panels over at the (Interstate 5) rest area (just south of the station), and they said: 'That doesn't make sense. Why not have it here?'" Seavert said.
"That could save us a lot of money just on our electricity alone, let alone if we can put power back into the grid," Seavert said.
In developing the strategic plan, the steering committee held 19 focus groups. In almost every session, Seavert said, citizens said the station should be more connected with the Portland area.
"Because of our location (20 miles south of downtown Portland) we could be the face of agriculture for the urban population," Seavert said. "With natural resources to the south and urban population to the north, we should be that entity that makes that link."
Seavert envisions the construction of an agricultural learning center at the station, complete with exhibits, conference rooms, an auditorium and offices for commodity commissions and other grower groups.
Short of that, projects like the solar panel project can attract urbanites and rural residents to the station.
"Growers could look at that (solar project) and decide maybe they want to do something like that on their farms, and downtown businesses can look at it and decide if they want to (install solar panels)."
Even hosting events to attract Portland-area residents to the station could help agriculture in general and the station in particular, Seavert said.
"We've always been thought of as the island of Aurora. You drive in and see that barbed-wire fence: We're not very warm and friendly," he said.
"If we stay in these silos, these (urban) people aren't going to get us," Seavert said.
Seavert, 56, spent 18 years at the Mid-Columbia Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Hood River, Ore., the last eight as superintendent.
Recently he announced he is leaving the Aurora station. As of Jan. 1, he'll teach two agricultural economics classes on the Oregon State University campus and concentrate more on research.
The main drivers in his decision, he said, are budget problems that plague the university's statewide public services. OSU extension and the experiment station face 25 percent budget cuts in the 2011-13 biennium. In addition, a desire to get back to research intrigues him.
"I decided to do that, and finish the last third of my career doing fun things, rather than worrying about the budget," Seavert said. "There are some things I want to get done, and I'm not going to get them done fighting budget battles.
"One of my big frustrations here has been that I can't get out and do a lot with the agricultural industries. I really enjoy getting out and talking to growers. And you can't do that here. You're tied up too much in meetings taking care of details," he said.
Seavert said he's confident he's making the right move.
"I thought at this point (one week from making the move), that I'd be going, 'Am I making the right decision?' But there is no hesitation. I'm really looking forward to moving on," he said.