Sustainable agricultural, food, and natural resource production

Oregon’s thousands of farms, timber producers, and commercial fishers provide food and fiber for millions and create economic opportunities in urban and rural Oregon. We must find solutions to address climate, pest, and market challenges that threaten the sustainability of our agricultural, forest and food systems across natural and working landscapes.

Chad Higgins drives a tractor in front of solar panels installed at the North Willamette Research and Extension Center.

Agrivoltaics is the concept of using arable land to simultaneously grow crops and generate solar power. Researchers in the College of Agricultural Sciences at Oregon State University are developing an agrivoltaics farm at the North Willamette Research and Extension Center (NWREC), 20 miles south of Portland.

Researchers are using solar panels installed near the OSU dairy and vegetable farm in Corvallis, collecting data as it grew crops and grazed sheep on land partially shaded by the panels. Chad Higgins, an associate professor in the Department of Biological an Ecological Engineering, has described the promise of agrivoltaics as providing a rare chance for true synergy – more food, more energy, lower water demand, lower carbon emissions, and more prosperous rural communities.

Higgins and his research associates have estimated that wide-scale installation of agrivoltaic systems in the United States could lead to an annual reduction of 330,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions – the equivalent of taking 75,000 cars off the road – while minimally impacting crop yield and creating more than 100,000 jobs in rural communities. Installing such systems on just 1% of current U.S. farmland could meet 20% of electricity generation needs for the country. Wide-scale installation of these systems could also open the door for other technologies, such as using solar arrays to power electric tractors or to generate fertilizer at farms rather than transporting it.

To further their research, a six-acre farm at NWREC – one of the branches of the Oregon Agricultural Experiment Station – will break ground in early 2022. In the past year, Oregon Clean Power Cooperative, a nonprofit dedicated to community solar projects, has partnered with OSU on a funding model for the project that’s now called Solar Harvest. Primary funders have been OSU and private investors.

Part of the farm’s six acres will be used as a control area to compare data on crops grown on the same soil with or without the partial shade of solar panels. Several crops will be planted – leafy greens previously produced the best results on the OSU campus. Solar panels will be installed higher and further apart than those on the OSU campus, enabling tractors to easily pass under them. Power generation is expected by late 2022 or early 2023.

The plan is for the farm’s electricity to go into the state grid and for OSU to be the anchor subscriber. The farm is expected to produce 700-800 kilowatts of power capacity.

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Delegates to the 2019 International Herbage Seed Conference attend a post-conference tour of Kentucky bluegrass field research in Union County.

Much of the funding for research to support Oregon’s $517 million grass seed industry comes from competitive grants offered by several commissions formed through efforts by Oregon State University Extension Service and partners. As a result, Extension programs have helped keep the industry economically competitive nationally and keep its ranking as the No. 5 agricultural commodity in the state.

Commissions aid the ryegrass, tall fescue, fine fescue, orchardgrass and clover seed segments of the industry. But historically, Oregon’s Kentucky bluegrass sector, which represents a farm gate value of $43 million and ranks as the second-largest in the nation, lacked an organizational structure, and Extension had struggled to help keep the Kentucky bluegrass seed producers and crop consultants up to date with research-based information, management recommendations and advancements in production technology. The federal Tri-State Sustainable Grass Seed Cropping Systems grant program was eliminated in the early 2000s, removing a critical source of funding for Kentucky bluegrass seed production research.

In response, Darrin Walenta, Extension agronomist for northeastern Oregon, worked closely with key growers in the Columbia Basin of Oregon and Washington to find consensus and implement a plan. During a series of meetings, there was interest across the industry for a funding source to address priority research needs specific to Kentucky bluegrass. In 2019, Walenta convened the first-ever workshop to start the organizational process for seed producers and industry representatives in the three production regions.

The workshop led to the formation of the Eastern Oregon Bluegrass Workgroup, which established an organizational structure, identified research needs and secured funding sources. A research committee, including two members from each region, were charged with identifying local research and Extension needs, reviewing proposals and selecting projects for funding. Walenta organized a post-workshop tour that drew 90 international delegates who saw Extension research and learned about seed production.

The Eastern Oregon Kentucky Bluegrass Workgroup, which partners with the Agricultural Research Foundation, is in its second year. The workgroup is self-supporting and has created a new funding pool that will benefit the Kentucky bluegrass industry in Oregon – funding $55,000 in research projects in 2020 and $75,000 in 2021. In the past, the production regions operated in isolation with their research and Extension efforts. As a result, the new organization has created more interactive dialogue between the production areas and has led to initiation of several research projects relevant to the industry.

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Participants in a Train the Trainers Food Safety Workshop.

Food safety education is the key to preventing the risk of food contamination in the supply chain, especially when crops are harvested directly by workers. In those cases, farms must remain especially vigilant to ensure their fruit and vegetables are pathogen-free and maintain high standards in cleaning and sanitation practices to prevent potential outbreaks.

Train the Trainers Food Safety workshops are valuable because there aren’t similar programs to offer educational opportunities for agricultural workers. The training targets a group of people not included in any formal education programs. It’s vital to train workers correctly because the agricultural workforce plays an important role in the prevention of food contamination. The Train the Trainers curriculum fills the education gap and supports good agricultural practices.

Considered essential, many farms remained open during COVID-19 despite challenging and evolving guidelines and regulations. For seven years, Train the Trainers Food Safety workshops were offered by the Healthy Plants and Bilingual Education Program at the Oregon Agricultural Experiment Station’s North Willamette Research and Extension Center in Aurora.

Continuing the workshops during the pandemic was important to reach the owners, managers and trainers supervising new seasonal workers, who can range from a few up to several hundred per day in the height of the season.

In response, Luisa Santamaria, OSU Extension nursery pathology and bilingual agent, turned to new digital technology to keep them coming. The bilingual education program’s curriculum was adapted to a Zoom platform, and training continued to update important information for the agriculture sector about pandemic regulations. In 2020, Santamaria and her faculty research assistant hosted 10 three-hour workshops, five in English and five in Spanish. Though not required by law, farmers attend out of interest and willingness to learn and adapt current practices. There were 169 participants, representing growers, workers, crew leaders and labor contractors.

Some field trainers can teach more than 1,000 workers in the harvest season between May and August. Using a low average of 50 workers trained by each of the individuals attending the workshops, it can be conservatively estimated that about 8,000 people were reached with the research-based education guidelines and concepts offered in the classes.

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Fladry is a line of flags or a rope mounted along the top of a fence, from which are suspended strips of fabric or colored flags that are intended to deter wolves from crossing the line.

Wolves pose a threat to livestock in the Pacific Northwest through depredation, and some studies have shown that their presence causes stress in cattle that leads to decreased reproductive rates and weight gain.

Under the Oregon Wolf Plan, in all phases of wolf management non-lethal deterrent measures to prevent wolf-livestock conflict remain the first choice of Oregon wildlife managers. These non-lethal preventative measures are required in all phases of wolf management before the Oregon department of Fish and Wildlife will consider lethal control of wolves due to chronic livestock depredation. There are, however, nonlethal options available. Ranchers are looking for reliable information on how they can prevent conflicts with wolves while staying within the confines of the law.

Ian McGregor, Oregon State University Extension Service livestock and irrigation specialist at the Klamath Basin Research and Extension Center, organized seminars in 2018 and 2019 on wolf-livestock conflict. The 2018 seminar, which drew 44 livestock managers, focused on the number of wolves and their location, identifying wolf attacks and nonlethal strategies for discouraging conflicts with wolves. In 2019, 12 livestock managers listened to a Montana rancher who has successfully created an environment where livestock and wolves can share the same space, speak about her success with nonlethal strategies.

Progressive Cattle published an article by McGregor on research-based information on the effectiveness of some of the most popular non-lethal strategies. The seminars and magazine article have resulted in changing the attitudes among ranchers toward wolves. McGregor noted that ranchers, in general, are beginning to understand the law and that intolerant attitudes toward wolves won’t help. Some have adopted strategies for keeping wolves away like human presence, changing calving season and night penning.

Extension’s efforts have allowed members and organizations from the cattle industry to work with other organizations they traditionally avoided. Defenders of Wildlife has been invited to the seminars and there has been discussion with them about potential projects to further help with creating a landscape where livestock and wolves can co-exist.

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Frozen packaged salmon.

There is a long-standing perception that the quality of frozen seafood is inferior to fresh seafood, although frozen seafood provides many benefits over fresh, including longer shelf life, a lower transportation carbon footprint and more consistent supply. Additionally, studies show that frozen products are often higher quality at the time of freezing than fresh products at the market. In some sensory tests, frozen products have been rated equal to, or more appealing than, fresh. Still, consumers have little information about the benefits of frozen seafood.

In response, Oregon Sea Grant Extension staff conducted a pilot project to inform seafood buyers about the quality and benefits of frozen seafood and to identify research and outreach needs. Partnering with the OSU Food Innovation Center, Sea Grant Extension held two educational events for chefs and seafood retailers to conduct fresh versus frozen seafood sensory tests and hold focus group discussions.

The team leveraged a Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch Blue Ribbon Task Force event that brought together 20 chefs from across the United States for the first workshop. The second event targeted seafood retailers from the Pacific Northwest.

As a result, many of the chefs and seafood retailers were surprised to discover that consumers had found frozen seafood to be as good as or better than fresh, and that they themselves agreed with this finding. The participants identified research needs – examples include shelf life of frozen product, optimal cooking temperature, and nutritional value of frozen product. They also suggested outreach efforts such as a rating system to guarantee quality and traceability of frozen seafood, and better consumer messaging – “flash frozen the day it was caught,” for example.

Based on the results of this project, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration awarded the team $300,000 to determine shelf life and consumer acceptability of four types of seafood stored in commercial and residential freezers for 18 months. The grant will also fund educational outreach efforts about frozen seafood.

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Recording a virtual dry farming field tour.

The Oregon State University Extension Dry Farming Project expanded so significantly in 2019 that student workers would be necessary to work on five planned field research projects in 2020. COVID-19 hit in the early spring, though, before those positions were filled.

The project adapted and navigated the hiring process amid pandemic restrictions and three students were brought onboard for the 2020 growing season. They worked with Amy Garrett, OSU Extension Small Farms Program associate professor of practice and coordinator of the Dry Farming Project. Garrett’s team continues its research into dry farming, the practice of growing crops like tomatoes, potatoes and beans with little or no irrigation.

As more guidelines and restrictions rolled out, it became apparent that any in-person programs for the public would have to be delivered virtually. After obtaining the appropriate equipment and diving into digital learning, the first Dry Farming Project virtual field tour series was held as harvest came in August and September. The series drew 137 participants from throughout Oregon, across the country and some internationally. Nine tours addressed a number of dry farming topics such as site suitability, soil management, variety trials and a harvest showcase.

Of the participants, 53% were commercial farmers and 51% of them didn’t have access to irrigation. Those not farming professionally included homesteaders and aspiring farmers. A majority of attendees hadn’t tried dry farming but 36% had one to five years of experience. Growth has been significant since the first dry farming field day in 2015, when less than 5% reported having dry farming experience. That equals a 30% increase in six years. The Dry Farming Collaborative, a fast-growing group of farmers and others inspired by the project, have a Facebook page that has seen membership grow 18% in the last year.

When the field tour participants were asked why they are interested in dry farming, there were a number of concerns, including having limited acess to irrigation water. Others cited climate change as their reason for considering dry farming. They were interested in the low-input techniques, the simplicity, cost and time savings and reduced labor.

“They want to conserve water and become more efficient while still producing flavorful, nutrient-dense foods,” Garret said.

In a follow-up survey, 55 responded and all of them reported their skills and knowledge improved and 68% plan to apply something they learned during the virtual feed tours. The Dry Farming Field Tours were recorded and have had 239 views as of January 2021.

Working with Garrett on the research team are Alex Stone, associate professor and Extension vegetable crop specialist; Lucas Nebert, postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Botany and Plant Pathology; and Matt Davis, faculty research assistant in the Department of Horticulture, all in the OSU College of Agricultural Sciences. Garrett is the author of the OSU Extension catalog publication, "Dry Farming in the Maritime Pacific Northwest: Intro to Dry Farming Organic Vegetables." 

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Bernadine Strik looks at raspberries grown at the North Willamette Research and Extension Center in Aurora.

In the late 1990s, Oregon growers had many questions about the best fertilizing methods for blueberry, raspberry, blackberry, strawberry and kiwiberries. Information available focused on typical grower practices and/or research from other regions. With targeted research, Oregon State University Extension Service and the Oregon Agricultural Experiment Station responded by providing growers with information on better nutrient management of those crops.

Nitrogen fertilizer is the key nutrient applied and timing and rates of application can lead to the largest positive and negative impacts on growth and quality. Bernadine Strik, professor of horticulture and Extension berry crops specialist at the North Willamette Research and Extension Center in Aurora, conducted research projects to trace plant nitrogen fertilizer uptake in strawberry, blueberry, raspberry and blackberry as affected by the rate and the time the fertilizer was applied. She found needs for the different berries differed.

In June-bearing strawberry, fertilization in spring reduced fruit quality and didn’t increase yield, so growers should only fertilize after harvest. In raspberry and blackberry, fertilizer is critical for new primocane growth so making sure fertilizer is applied in early spring is important. In blueberries, fertilizer isn’t taken up by the plant until bloom, so recommendations changed to delay application until then.

Often higher rates of nitrogen didn’t increase yield, adding fertilizer costs and increased risk of nitrogen leaching. Moderate rates were recommended, saving growers up to $300 per acre, with split applications of granular products or fertigation – applying fertilizer mixed in water through drip irrigation – through the spring into early- to mid-summer improved yield and fruit quality. New OSU Extension nutrient management guides were published for growers and home gardeners.

Strik and Amanda Davis, faculty research assistant, also looked at the impact of growing season and cultivar on tissue nutrient concentration in blueberry, blackberry and kiwiberries. Ideal leaf tissue sampling times were established with some nutrient sufficiency ranges revised, which will help growers better evaluate plant nutrient status and improve fertilizer nutrient management programs.

In 2006, there was a strong interest in expanding organic berry production. Organic growers didn’t know if they could substitute appropriate fertilizers or to further modify practices. Different sources of organic fertilizer and application methods were studied in certified organic blueberries and blackberries. Blackberry plants weren’t sensitive to fertilizer source, but blueberry plants were. Products were identified that could be fertigated successfully, saving growers in application costs. Lower rates of nitrogen fertilizer could be used in blueberry saving growers up to $900 per acre.

When growers use organic fertilizers, they often contain more than just nitrogen – many also contain potassium. When growers choose such products, they may be applying potassium even when levels in the soil and plant are sufficient. Fish solubles (fertigated) and compost were commonly used, but both contain potassium. Strik and her team found these applications of potassium over many years (2006-2016) led to a reduction in yield. When they stopped fertilizing with products containing potassium – like soy-protein-based liquid products – and stopped using compost, yield of mature plants improved by as much as 50% from 2017 to 2020. The findings were shared via presentations regionally, nationally, internationally and with Extension publications and peer and scientific articles.

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Irrigating a pasture.

Climate change is a pressing issue for farmers and ranchers around the world. Oregon farmers and ranchers are experiencing irrigation shortfalls due to a rise in temperature, reduced snowpack, increasing urban populations and environmental issues that demand more water for local rivers and less for irrigation. It’s important that the agricultural community and small property owners conserve water when raising livestock and irrigating crops and pastures.

In Crook, Deschutes and Jefferson counties, irrigated pastures cover 46,600 acres with Deschutes County having 42,133 acres. Flood irrigation – the least efficient method in central Oregon – is used on 11,243 of those acres and the method intensifies when pastures are overgrazed. Overgrazing leads to increased irrigation, a reduction in forage production, increased water runoff, loss of topsoil and proliferation of weeds. With efficient water use and decreased overgrazing, irrigation on pastures will decline.

Landowners primarily overgraze their pastures due to a lack of knowledge, time constraints and the cost of converting to sprinkler irrigation systems. In response, Scott Duggan, Oregon State University Extension Service livestock agent, and Mylan Bohle, Extension agronomist, collaborated to provide educational workshops to landowners with irrigated property about the benefits of efficient irrigation practices and livestock grazing.

Duggan and Bohle, who are affiliated with the Central Oregon Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Madras, have organized and taught 17 workshops and field tours in Jefferson, Deschutes and Crook counties since 2016, drawing 210 small-acreage landowners, farmers and ranchers.

As a result, the workshops and popular field tours provided the education needed to make the right decisions about livestock grazing and irrigation in order to conserve water, increase forage production and increase profits. Converting to sprinkler irrigation is a major workshop theme, which results in 20%-30% water savings. In addition, rotational grazing prevents overgrazing and results in increased forage production of 30% or more and reduced water loss.

The goal is that through education, small-acreage landowners will convert to more efficient irrigation systems and eliminate overgrazing of pastures, thereby conserving water for future needs. Partners include Natural Resource Conservation Service and local Soil and Water Conservation districts.

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Processed steaks at the OSU Clark Meat Lab.

The national Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) program, developed by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, is meant to promote safe and wholesome beef, raise consumer confidence and bring bigger profits. Major beef packing plants require BQA certification and some small-scale meat farmers in Oregon are using certification to promote their niche meat products. But many beef producers don’t have the certification.

In Oregon, the BQA certification is implemented by the Oregon State University Extension Service, which promotes BQA-approved best management practices. The certification is available to cow-calf operators, stocker operations, feedyards and transporters, who must participate in workshops and pass a BQA test before getting certified.

Beginning in January 2019, three major beef packers in Oregon required feedyard BQA certification. A year later, all transporters hauling cattle to major packers in the region had to be certified. There is a strong demand in Oregon cattle industry to get certified and Extension has a crucial role to play. The Oregon BQA Team was modified to equip Extension Service personnel and industry partners across Oregon to offer BQA certification.

In eastern Oregon in 2019, 80 cow-calf operators and 12 feedyard operators, six in English and six in Spanish, were certified. In addition, 26 producers were trained, and a poster presentation displayed in central Oregon as part of the 2019 Oregon Cattlemen’s Association conference. In western Oregon 71 producers were trained from 2019 to 2020.

Extension worked closely with Beef Northwest to ensure 22 feedyard workers had Spanish curriculum for BQA certification. Feedyards getting certified with new curriculum represent operations with a daily capacity of 100,000 fed cattle. Additional Extension participation went to training more Extension faculty, a veterinarian, an industry representative and two feedyard employees to become Oregon BQA Trainers.

The program improves consumer acceptance of beef and inspires beef producers to improve the safety and wholesomeness of beef. A recent study funded by Beef Checkoff dollars and conducted by Colorado State University showed a premium on cattle when marketed as raised by BQA-certified producers.

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A forklift moves donated hay at the North Willamette Research and Extension Center.

The wildfires that ripped through western Oregon in September 2020 displaced thousands of head of livestock when their owners evacuated. County fairgrounds became the destination for cattle, horses, sheep, goats, poultry and other animals. Many other animals found their way to private farms, rodeo grounds, horse-training facilities and kind strangers’ pastures.

But food was scarce. Many farmers and ranchers lost hay or pasture and it was challenging to feed their animals when they were allowed to return to their homes.

In response, Oregon State University Extension Service coordinated a statewide hay donation and distribution program to help those in need. The three regional locations – the North Willamette Research and Extension Center in Aurora, the Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center in Central Point and several locations around Roseburg and Central Point – were set up to receive hay donations and provide distribution.

Jenifer Cruickshank, Extension agent and assistant professor of practice in the Department of Animal and Rangeland Science in the College of Agricultural Sciences, developed an online survey tool that was easily accessible via computer or mobile device, to collect information from those needing hay. Site coordinators could contact people needing hay to get a fuller sense of what they required and to communicate hay availability and pick-up details.

Nearly 500 tons of hay were distributed throughout the affected areas in October when need was imperative for feeding hungry animals. In Union County, more than 100 tons were donated.

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Agritourism pumpkins. P

When COVID-19 started, most family activities were put on hold and stores started running out of supplies. Schools and restaurants closed, sports and entertainment were limited and traveling came to a halt. People craved something to do, something to get them out of the house and ways to supplement their pantry.

Many people worried about food shortages and turned to local sources. Fortunately, farmers were considered essential and were able to continue working. The 4-year-old Marion Farm Loop, a program supported by Oregon State University Extension Service, was poised to provide the public with the activities they wanted. The 24 farms that in the Marion County area make up the cooperative go beyond offering food. There are pumpkin patches, wine tasting, animal barns, nature walks and other activities. Known as agritourism, the idea is to find another financial stream to keep farmers on the right side of the profit margin.

Working with Oregon Agritourism Partnership, which runs the Marion Farm Loop, Extension organized meetings, helped create and produce a brochure highlighting the 24 farms in the loop, as well as an interactive website. Visitors can easily explore sources and find safely run farms to visit to find activities or products that appeal to them and tempts them out of the house.

As a result, by the end of 2020, 5,000 Marion County Loop brochures were distributed. Social media bloomed with hundreds of interactions online. New customers discovered or rediscovered U-pick, farm stands, CSAs, on-farm bakeries, nurseries and harvest festivals held with strict safety measures. Though they were allowed to continue farming, some of the customers they rely on disappeared – at least for awhile. The Marion County Loop brought people back, helping to defer some losses the farms experienced during the pandemic.

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Adult Workplace/COVID-19 Mini-Poster.

Each year about 6,000-15,000 migrant and seasonal farm workers arrive in the Columbia River Gorge from late May through early June to work in orchards, packing houses and on farms to harvest, pack, and process the region's cherries, apples, peaches, pears, blueberries and wine grapes. In 2020, these workers and their families were among the most vulnerable groups for COVID-19, given their congregate traveling, working and housing conditions. COVID-19’s spread threatened the region’s local agricultural sector, posing both a humanitarian and economic crisis.

In response, a team of community organizations that included the Oregon State University Extension Service mobilized for the 2020 harvest season to support migrant and seasonal farm workers. Hundreds of hours were spent in dozens of coordination meetings developing a collective response. Wasco and Hood River counties mobilized their emergency operation centers and incident command.

Extension faculty played a critical role in supporting these workers with food, quarantine housing, personal protective equipment, communicating about COVID symptoms, testing and prevention. They also supported new technology for regional medical providers to offer telehealth and for children to participate in distance learning. Faculty members Lauren Kraemer, Ashley Thompson and Lynette Black serve on local emergency operation center and incident command committees. Kraemer served on the Migrant and Seasonal Farm Worker Taskforce, a food support subcommittee and separate Migrant and Seasonal Farm Worker Advisory Board and Evaluation Team meetings. Thompson supported the agriculture sector in the region, offering webinars, training and support and evaluation to local orchardists. Black managed volunteers and supported personal protective equipment donations and distribution.

An Extension summer intern, Daniela Valle, developed plain-language pictorial public service announcements and infographics about COVID-19 symptoms, prevention, face coverings and care and that were shared via email as posters and flyers, as well as through Instagram and Facebook posts. Kraemer also worked with the Extension Food Hero team and colleague Glenda Hyde to adapt existing High Speed Hand Washing (HSHW) materials for adults in the workplace. Extension faculty distributed hundreds of thousands of disposable face coverings and over 4,000 reusable cloth face coverings among the region’s agricultural communities. They also handed out HSHW materials on waterproof paper to local agriculture partners to encourage efficient and effective handwashing practices.

As a result, Extension’s multi-pronged approach resulted in fewer cases of COVID-19. In Wasco County, the COVID-19 infection rate among migrant workers was 0.41%. There were zero deaths or hospitalizations among migrant and seasonal farm workers and zero cases in Wasco County packing houses. Free hand sanitizer, WiFi hot spots, and other actions saved orchardists an estimated $45,000. In a January 2021 Wasco County Advisory Board meeting, two local orchardists, a county administrator, and county commissioner shared their deep gratitude and pride in Extension organization for its response to COVID-19 and the support provided to the region.

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