The Oregon Coast seems an unlikely place for a garden. The conifers that persist along the sand and wind-beaten cliffs that skirt the Pacific can look less like flora and more like severe abstract sculpture. And the storms, with their horizontal rains, would seem to make gardening nearly impossible.
But just north of the Yaquina Bay Bridge in Newport, not far from the historic lighthouse, a group of Master Gardner volunteers trained by the Oregon State University Extension Service has coaxed a verdant garden from the difficult soil (watch an audio slideshow). It’s a teaching garden, and with it the Master Gardeners have taught hundreds of school children how to make vegetables grow.
Liz Olson is one of these volunteers. On a wet, blustery day in October, she and several of her colleagues gathered 30 third-graders from Newport’s Sam Case Elementary School for the garden’s final harvest of potatoes, carrots, lettuce, kohlrabi, and squash.
The students were involved in the process from the beginning. They planted seeds in the greenhouse, transplanted them to the garden, watered, and weeded. They also tasted their crops, discovering the sweet crunch of a carrot and the bite of arugula.
“It’s a thrill to see students being introduced both to the natural gardening process and healthy eating habits, and getting them to try new things,” said Olson.
The thrill of learning and teaching what you’ve learned attracts many people to OSU’s Extension’s master-level volunteer programs. About 8,000 trained Masters volunteered in Oregon in 2009. Nearly half were Master Gardeners, who collectively put in nearly 200,000 volunteer hours that amounted to more than $4 million worth of service to backyard gardeners, students, church groups, and others.
Since launching Master Gardeners in the 1970s, OSU Extension has created several other volunteer training programs to provide Oregon’s residents with the skills they need to improve their lives and their communities.
For example, since 1982, the Master Woodland Managers course has trained more than 400 people who have in turn contributed more than 30,000 hours in volunteer service to help private woodland owners manage their forests and care for their land.
“A lot of our volunteers stay active far beyond their required time,” said Nicole Strong, head of the program. “The course asks that they contribute 80 hours, but most of them continue to volunteer for years.”
Butch Tanzey has been a Master Woodland Manager since 2007. He continues to volunteer countless hours in Wallowa County, where he has lived his whole life. “I don’t keep track of the hours. It would scare me to death,” he said. In 2009 Oregon State University Extension Service honored Tanzey for donating more hours than any other volunteer in the program. “Not a week goes by when I don’t get a call,” he says. “I never say ‘no’ to a request.”
Tanzey, who owns and operates a logging outfit in Wallowa, has seen the surrounding land change hands from loggers to vacationers.
“The main goal I have as a Master Woodland Manager is to help educate people who own a chunk of this real estate,” he said. “They need to understand everything that’s going to affect their land so they make the right choices.”
Tanzey volunteers his time to help preserve eastern Oregon’s legacy for the next generation. He doesn’t know Michele Pryse, an OSU-trained Master Gardener and Family Food Education volunteer in southern Oregon’s Central Point, but they have something in common.
Pryse spends about 150 hours a year teaching food preservation and safety skills in part so she can pass traditional knowledge on to people who are seeking it.
“Not everyone has a grandmother or an aunt who can teach them these things anymore,” she said. She goes all out when she teaches, too, like on the 100-degree September day when she appeared on local television to talk about how to use pears and apples. For her props, Pryse baked a pie and crisps, made applesauce, displayed dehydrated samples, and arranged baskets of apples and pears.
“I wanted to show people back-to-the-basics things you can do with the humble apple and pear, and how good those things taste,” said Pryse.
It’s not the only time Pryse has appeared on local television. She’s appeared in several programs on gardening demonstrating how to store fresh produce and stretch a food budget. On television and in the classroom, Pryse teaches harvesting, canning, and how to make jams, pickles, and soups from fresh, local ingredients.
To demonstrate cost savings, Pryse labels her canned goods with her cost and the price she’d pay if she purchased a similar product at a grocery store. Her fruit leather, for example? At the store, it retails for about $0.89. At home, she estimates a serving costs her about a penny.
As an OSU Extension volunteer, Pryse also regularly takes phone calls at home from people who are canning incorrectly, often with improper ingredients or faulty equipment, and risking botulism. “As Family Food Educators we save lives,” she said. “That’s huge.”
In 2009, about 350 new and veteran Family Food Education volunteers spent 23,100 hours educating the public about safe food handling and preservation. They made more than 28,900 contacts with the public at workshops, exhibits, farmers markets, and county fairs. More than 5,500 of those were callers who received assistance from Oregon State University Extension Service’s statewide food safety hotline.
Carrying a pitchfork and pushing a manure-filled wheelbarrow across a rain-drenched field, her turquoise boots turned brown with mud, Lisa Battan exudes passion. Battan, an Oregon State University Extension Service 4-H youth development club leader, works with elementary through high school students on their 4-H livestock and small animal projects.
She teaches the older students general livestock husbandry and encourages them to join in mucking stalls, grooming horses, and other barn chores. Younger club members engage in age-appropriate hands-on barn activities such as feeding chickens and brushing rabbits.
Battan does all this from the OSU Extension office/4-H club headquarters at the family-owned Alpenrose Dairy in metropolitan southwest Portland.
“The dairy, it’s like an ark,” said Battan, who helped foster the relationship between the dairy owners and OSU Extension. “It’s a little farm in the middle of the city where kids can come and reconnect with the past. They can see where their food comes from and be part of real work.”
Battan became involved with 4-H after being laid off from a marketing position in Portland. Rather than become despondent with the state of the economy, she made the decision to take steps toward her dream of working and living on a farm. She contacted Alpenrose and received permission to volunteer in the barns caring for livestock with dairy employees.
When her daughters joined her for farm chores, she realized their experience was something she’d like other urban youth to share. That’s when Battan contacted OSU Extension about the possibilities of starting a 4-H club and becoming a club leader.
“Our 4-H Farm Discovery club is much more than a petting zoo,” said Jon Mayer, the OSU Extension 4-H agent who helped Battan start the club and provides curriculum and programming for club members. “All the youth take on service learning projects and help with barn chores. They learn compassion and empathy, in addition to animal science and biology.”
Every year, 4-H club leaders help thousands of Oregon children learn the skills they need to better understand their state and their role in its health. Club leaders come from all walks of life and have backgrounds ranging from engineers in the high-tech industry to cattle ranchers and small farmers.
“I grew up in southern California in the Hollywood entertainment industry,” said Battan. “But that wasn’t who I was. 4-H is allowing me to pursue my passions without having to be an expert, and I get to share all that I learn with urban youth. I want to tell them all that they don’t have to take what’s served to them in the city. There’s more.”
Other opportunities to volunteer as part of OSU Extension in urban and rural areas include: 4-H Wildlife Stewards, a program to promote science and environmental stewardship in Oregon’s schools; Climate Masters, a program that teaches volunteers to help Oregonians reduce their personal energy costs and carbon footprints; and Master Composters or Recyclers, which puts volunteers through an eight-week program where they learn about reducing the waste stream of their communities.
The newest volunteer opportunity is with the developing Master Naturalist program, which will give participants an overview of Oregon’s flora, fauna, ecosystems, and geology.
Back in Portland, across the city from Alpenrose, another group of OSU-trained volunteers are hard at work. Master Watershed Steward volunteers are contributing to the city’s multimillion-dollar Tabor to the River project to improve the neighborhood’s sewer system.
OSU Extension faculty and community partners will teach southeast Portland residents how to maintain green streets, watersheds, and parks, and to coordinate their won on-the-ground projects. Classes will count toward Master Watershed Steward training. It will be the first time Master content is tailored specifically to a neighborhood, the intent being to create a task force of volunteers who will help maintain the project’s improvements.
“These are people who really respect the idea of being lifelong learners,” said Megan Kleibacker, who heads OSU Extension’s Master Watershed Steward program. “They incorporate that desire into their lifestyle, and regardless of their area, Extension volunteers learn so they can teach others.”
BY THE NUMBERS
Tracking the impact of OSU Extension Service volunteers:
- 18,000 active volunteers in Oregon trained by OSU Extension service
- 200,000 hours contributed by Master Gardener volunteers in 2009
- 4,000,000 dollar value of services contributed by those Master Gardeners
- 23,100 hours contributed to the public in 2009 by Family Food Educator volunteers sharing information about food preservation and safe handling
- 5,500 calls received by the OSU Extension statewide food safety hotline in 2009
- 1 in 5 students in K-12 who participate each year in 4-H youth development programming
- 80 percentage of Master Woodland Managers who volunteer beyond their required time
- 2,000,000 Oregonians who receive information and educational programs from OSU Extension volunteers each year
-Story by Celene Carillo and Aimee Lyn Brown