Farmer-professor cultivates ties between agriculture, consumers
By MITCH LIES
CORVALLIS, Ore. -- Anita Azarenko, one of four daughters of an American military officer, grew up in the German cities of Frankfurt and Garmisch.
It is the weekends she spent on her mother's family farm in rural Germany, however, that stick with her.
"I remember bringing out lunch and helping with sugar beet harvest, barley harvest and potato harvest," Azarenko said.
"We would work hard all day," she said. "I remember being so exhausted."
Years later, Azarenko, then a pre-med student at the University of Maryland, found herself unable to get into a genetics class. She took a plant genetics class instead.
"It just changed my life," she said. "All of a sudden I thought: You know, this is really interesting."
Azarenko, 51, today is head of the Department of Horticulture at Oregon State University and a farmer.
A plant physiologist specializing in tree fruits, Azarenko spends weekends at farmers' markets selling the organic fruit she and her husband produce on their 160-acre farm.
"It keeps me grounded," she said of her weekends. "And it helps me with my job here. It helps me coach faculty and design programs that connect from soil to soul, connects our programs from the growing piece to the consumer piece."
Also, she said, the experience helps her tell agriculture's story.
"When somebody asks something about apple varieties or cherries or hazelnuts, it provides a huge opportunity for me to talk about the challenges around horticulture production," she said. "There are these light bulbs that come on where people say: 'Oh, I didn't think about that.'"
Azarenko helps Oregon farmers in many ways, according to growers. Her reach spans from conventional to organic agriculture. And it has won her praise in both circles.
"I think she is the most knowledgeable horticultural cherry specialist in the Pacific Northwest," said Mel Omeg, a cherry grower from The Dalles, Ore.
"She has made a number of suggestions to help the industry grow bigger, quality cherries in select varieties suited for the fresh market," Omeg said. "And she has done a lot of experimenting with pruning techniques that are used to grow the bigger, firmer cherries."
In organic circles, Azarenko is viewed as a key player in helping steer Oregon State University programs toward organic studies.
"I have seen OSU make a big shift under Anita's guidance from being kind of standoffish about organic agriculture to being one of the foremost research programs in the country for supporting organic agriculture," said Lynn Coody, who has been involved in organic farming in Oregon for 30 years.
Azarenko said she doesn't advocate one type of farming over another.
"What I say in this department is, it is not advocating for a single farming system. It is about ensuring that whatever your choice is, that your farming system is environmentally, socially and economically sustainable," she said.
"We're at a very unique place in time right now in our country, where urban communities want to know more about their food, which is very refreshing," she said. "At the farmers' market, people will say something and I think, oh, they are really interested.
"That hasn't always been the case."
Education: Doctorate in horticulture and plant physiology from the University of Maryland
Position: Head of the Department of Horticulture, Oregon State University
Family: Husband, David Landis, and one grown son.
Quote: "If we help the consumer understand agriculture, we help the grower."