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It's a typical late-fall afternoon in western Oregon. Leaden sky. Drizzle imminent.

Trees with red and gold leaves frame the big backyard. Birds sing. The smell of fresh-cut wood mixes with the fragrances of freshly turned garden soil and fallen fruit rotting in moist, ankle-high grass. It's pastoral, except less than a block away cars are roaring down River Road, a former country lane that's now one of the main thoroughfares in the north end of Oregon's second largest city.

Woman standing next to pointing man.

Ross Penhallegon, left, doing his job. Photo: Andy Duncan

Thirty people standing around a 50-year-old apple tree, many of them dressed in slickers, rubber boots or other foul-weather gear, seem oblivious to the sights, smells and noises. They seem oblivious to everything but a fellow wearing a blue baseball cap and those light-sensitive glasses that turn dark outdoors.

How would you control diseases in an apple tree and not hurt the butterflies in your yard? How many bug traps do you need per acre to monitor the density of pests in a commercial orchard? "Ross, it seems like my pear trees have an incredible number of suckers [undesirable shoots] on them. Why is that?"

"I love you guys. You must have my notes memorized," the man in the blue baseball cap says several times as he stops to answer a question. Then he continues his work high on a ladder-whacking at the huge, unruly tree with a chain saw or various non-motorized saws and long- and short-handled clippers and snippers in his tool box.

It's a pruning demonstration organized by the volunteers who operate Lane County's Master Gardener program. The program and the efforts of the man in the blue hat are the work of Oregon State University.

Ross Penhallegon parks his truck, desk, computer, pens and pencils, cellular phone, pruning gear and other tools here in Eugene, at the Extension Service's Lane County office. But his assignment as an OSU horticulture agent is to help the residents of Lane, Linn and Benton counties. The job is a balancing act.

Take Lane County, for example. "It's urban and rural. City and country. Farmers and homeowners," Penhallegon explains. There's "tremendous desire" for information among the county's homeowners, he says, but there is among farmers and would-be farmers, too.

Penhallegon used to work with Lane County exclusively and there was more work than he could do, he says. Because of budget cuts his assignment has expanded to the other counties. Spread even thinner, he's forced to search harder for the proverbial "biggest bang for the buck" in serving residents. That means, where possible, delivering the same information to diverse individuals and groups.

"There are about 120 crops you could grow in Lane County. The grower community alone is very diverse," he says, launching an explanation of his strategy.

"I've found most of the growers have four or five crops-blueberries, strawberries, tree fruits, grass seed, vegetables and so on," he continues. "They don't have much time to come to meetings to get information like people used to."

But growers will pay attention to a newspaper, radio or television story related to one of their crops, if it's at the right time of the season, says Penhallegon. So he's prepared hundreds of news releases and writes columns that deliver educational information through the counties' media.

He also produces a newsletter and publications that address common questions. "The Web has potential but it isn't there yet with enough clients," he says.

"I try to mold the information so it helps everyone-commercial and urban folks," he says. "Tree fruit diseases, for example, affect both.

"Over 50 percent of the phone calls I get are from people who want to know how to grow something," he says, "or want to know what to grow on five acres of land. Is it worth it to grow chestnuts? Can I make money at it?"

So he wrote a publication called Growing Agricultural Crops for Profit in Lane County, Oregon. It leads the reader through a process of information gathering. The soils you have. Irrigation considerations. Climate, and so on. He offers to sit down and discuss options once a person has done this homework.

Marketing is toughest, Penhallegon says.

"Whether it's blueberries, asparagus, rhubarb, chestnuts or whatever, now that you have five acres of the crop, what do you do with it?" he says. The publication covers marketing, too.

The kind of help established growers need has changed, according to Penhallegon. Farmer cooperatives and farm service agencies that sell fertilizers and other agricultural products maintain field staffs that provide a lot of the basic, how-to information extension agents once did. But he thinks extension agents' new roles are very important.

"One is to provide the commercial growers with non-biased information," he says. "They can bounce ideas they get from the different field staffs, which are businesses, off us."

He doesn't see extension agents in competition and explains how growers and farm service agencies cooperated recently on an OSU-organized study of 20 farm sites in the three counties. The goal was to identify problems and develop best management practices to prevent pesticide and nitrate leaching into groundwater.

"We can be very confident now saying those growers are doing an excellent job of controlling pesticide and nitrate leaching," he says.

Penhallegon is proud of another collaboration, Lane County's stand against a disease moving south in the Willamette Valley.

"Back in 1990 I got a call from the Oregon Department of Agriculture," he recalls. "They said 10 trees infected with filbert blight had been shipped to Lane County."

Farmers and people who may not have been able to tell the difference between a hazelnut and a malted milk ball joined a blitz that kept the disease from spreading. "I was getting calls from joggers, delivery people, walking groups, all kinds of folks reporting contorted-looking trees," says Penhallegon. There was a similar public outpouring in 1995.

Overall, Penhallegon says, his balancing act is "fun but nerve-wracking"-so much demand, so little time. But he maintains a sense of humor.

"I'm through. I'm getting hoarse. You've now been empowered to prune," he tells the little band of 30 huddled by the old apple tree, now about half the size it was at the start of the afternoon. "Go out and have fun. If you make a mistake, it'll grow back."