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From pears to wine

A hundred years after seeds were sown for the Southern Oregon Research & Extension Center, the region’s residents ensured they would keep growing and bearing fruit.

Commercial agriculture warranted the Extension’s 1914 inception. From horticulture to food science, from youth activities to support for seniors, the Extension’s mission expanded in the following century across Southern Oregon’s social strata. Asked to approve special funding for the Extension, or to watch it close, Jackson County residents in May 2014 overwhelmingly pledged their loyalty to its legacy.

“Seventy-five percent of the voters saw a value to us,” says Phil Van Buskirk, the Extension’s director, who is retiring this year. “Because we have a taxing district now, it will remain forever.”

The permanent tax base — about $8 per household per year — restores funds cut from the Jackson County budget, which previously paid for facilities upkeep, grounds maintenance, custodial service, clerical support and various operational costs. The tax district also supplies several staff positions that went unfilled for several years, putting several popular programs in peril.

“The (tax) district has allowed us to come back and rebuild,” says Van Buskirk. “You’re gonna see a lot of growth.”

The growth of pear cultivation precipitated the presence of Oregon State University in Jackson County. The state’s land-grant college founded the Southern Oregon Experiment Station in 1911, just two years before a severe fire blight epidemic destroyed large tracts of the region’s pear orchards.

Fruit growers joined forces with county officials, appointing inspectors and carrying out eradication measures against the bacterial disease. Now known as the Fruit Growers’ League of Jackson County, the group welcomed the assistance and oversight of OSU Extension Service, established in Jackson County a year after fire blight reached crisis levels.

By 1930, pears became the top orchard crop in the Rogue Valley, where warm days, cool nights and heavy clay soils favor the fruit. Production peaked at 11,700 acres. The valley’s longtime flagship fruit, pears currently constitute about 5,000 acres of its farmland, says Van Buskirk.

“We rely on agriculture to maintain the beauty of our valley,” he says. “The growth, however, is truly going to be the viticulture.”

Local grape-growers soon will gain the first staff position dedicated to the Extension’s Viticulture Program, says Van Buskirk. The valley’s vineyards, almost equal with pears in acreage, have grown steadily for the past 40 years with few problems, he says. But issues, including harmful insects and viruses, that have arisen in California are migrating north.

Interest in agriculture also is migrating to the younger generation, as evidenced by participation in the Extension’s Small Farms Program. Fostering food security through local production and distribution, backed by organic practices, or at least a reduction in pesticides, is farming’s future, says Van Buskirk. More than 3,000 participants attended 200 classes hosted by the Small Farms Program over a five-year period, according to Extension publications.

“These folks coming straight out of college … they want to go back to farming,” says Van Buskirk.

The farmer’s way of life starts even earlier for more than 3,000 youth involved in local 4-H clubs administered by the Extension. Beyond the care of livestock, 4-H clubs help “youth from all walks of life to be more successful,” says John Punches, Extension regional administrator for four counties in Southern Oregon.

Recent surveys of Extension programs noted that 4-H, above all, encourages kids to engage in community service, says Punches. The organization stands to grow in the coming years, particularly in local schools and after-school programs.

Classes for caregivers, both of children and seniors, is a new request of the Extension, says Punches. That need likely will be addressed by a new faculty position in the area of family and community health, which will double the program’s capacity, he adds.

Last year, SOREC faculty, staff and volunteers provided more than 1,000 educational opportunities, including classes, workshops and projects, says Punches. Perennially popular, and still ranked high among Extension priorities, are food preservation and gardening, particularly growing one’s own food, he adds.

Master Gardeners and Food Preservers soon may be joined by “Master Naturalists,” says Punches, indicating the continued vitality of SOREC’s unique Land Steward Program, which has trained 120 local residents since its 2009 inception, affecting 5,000 acres of private land. The program’s next iterations, he adds, could be urban or youth land stewards.

“We hope you will see more presence,” says Van Buskirk, “across the county.”

Reach freelance writer Sarah Lemon at thewholedish@gmail.com.

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A honey bee explores the Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center's lavender field. 2015 Mail Tribune file photo
Grapes grow in Del Rio Vineyards and Winery in Gold Hill. Wine grapes are close to overtaking pears as the Rogue Valley's largest crop.