You’re eye-to-eye with a smug-looking, three-inch pigmy lizard, a curious Bengal tiger or a sleepy-eyed sperm whale. You’re watching an aphid and a wasp fight to the death on a filbert leaf. You’re embedded in Oregon’s annual wheat harvest, or peeking into the pink-petaled world of the “Rhody Man,” who invents flowers for a living. What you’re also doing is looking at the covers of old issues of this magazine.
The autumn of 2003 is the 50th anniversary of the founding of Oregon’s Agricultural Progress. The magazine is published by the Oregon Agricultural Experiment Station, which is headquartered at Oregon State University and has branch facilities around the state. Its primary purpose is to tell Oregon taxpayers about research they help fund.
I edited Oregon’s Agricultural Progress from 1979 until 2003. I’ve thumbed through its back issues thousands of times. I’ve also argued about them with colleagues in OSU’s Department of Extension and Experiment Station Communications while we huddled around typewriters and, later, computers, or bounced along dusty or snow-packed roads, or tramped through farm fields or remote mountains.
Which issue is the best? Which cover is the best? Best article? Best layout? Craziest photo (how about the nearly naked professor reclining on a bed of giant tortoises)? Silliest drawing (perhaps the debonair “possum in paradise” hanging upside down in a tuxedo)? Most confusing photo illustration (maybe the extension specialist digging a soil sample with his pocket knife, with the Earth looming above in an ink-black sky; what, he’s out working at night—on the moon)?
The people who engaged in these good-natured arguments had lots of duties besides working on the magazine. Despite that, one thing we usually agreed on was how much we enjoyed the long days and nights toiling on an issue of the little collection of ink, paper and staples we called, simply, “OAP.”
Part of our enthusiasm, I believe, stemmed from the magazine’s focus on the human side of research. We were true believers out to pierce the myth that science is boring. Out to show how passionate most scientists are about their research, and that the work can be scary, exciting and, sometimes, funny. Also, the magazine dealt with important issues that affected the state’s natural treasures and Oregonians’ pocketbooks, health, families and communities. Last, a lot of the projects were exotic, off the paths most state residents travel. Some were way out there, and I’m not just talking about geography.
I’ll give you a few examples later. First, a little on how Oregon’s Agricultural Progress was born.
The Oregon Agricultural Experiment Station is part of a national network. Congress established an experiment station in every state in 1887 with legislation called the Hatch Act.
“Back in 1953 the agricultural experiment stations in most states were still fulfilling a federal requirement to report to the public on their research by putting out these dull annual reports, really abstracts of their scientists’ work. They were almost entirely unreadable for the general public,” 76-year-old Robert Mason, Oregon’s Agricultural Progress’s first editor, told me recently.
“The Experiment Station had hired Sam Bailey (an OSU journalism professor) to produce its annual report in a more popular, readable style,” said Mason.
When Bailey took another job, as head of the university’s news bureau, then-agriculture dean and Agricultural Experiment Station director Earl Price and assistant Station directors Bob Henderson and Bob Alexander made a change, too. They asked an OSU agriculture graduate who’d earned a master’s degree in agricultural journalism at Wisconsin and was working for Iowa State University to return to his alma mater and turn the Experiment Station’s annual report into a quarterly magazine.
Editor Bob Mason put black and white photos of cattle, chickens and a weed-spraying device on the cover of the first issue of Oregon’s Agricultural Progress in the fall of 1953. The articles inside were in plain English. They took clear aim at farmers, which back then were a lot more of Oregon’s citizens.
Each new issue of the magazine conveyed the latest findings of professors hired to teach OSU students, conduct Experiment Station research and work with Extension agents around the state who were conduits between researchers and the public.
As the 1950s—and the years and decades beyond—rolled along, the complexity of meeting the state’s needs changed, so the Experiment Station funded more scientists in disciplines outside what traditionally was thought of as agriculture: microbiologists, fish and wildlife biologists, food scientists, economists and environmental and molecular toxicologists, to name a few. Eventually a marine branch station appeared on the Oregon Coast, and a branch station was established at the Food Innovation Center in Portland.
Oregon’s Agricultural Progress reflected the Experiment Station’s evolution.
In the early years, well-written, meticulously presented articles about agricultural production research remained the magazine’s mainstay, but some of its covers echoed the Station’s expanding agenda. Those featured pheasants, young salmon, “wild lands.”
Mason continued as editor until 1967, except for brief periods when he studied at other universities. For three years, short-term editors filled in while OAP’s founding editor did other communication work for the Experiment Station. Then in 1970 he made two important decisions. One was to quit.
“By that time I had a Ph.D. in mass communication research from Stanford and was publishing articles in scientific journals on my own work. I’d found some problems I wanted to work on that were far more interesting to me than editing a magazine,” said Mason, who went on to build a national reputation as a professor with OSU’s Survey Research Center in the Department of Statistics.
His other important decision was to hire a science writer away from The Oregonian in Portland to be overall communications leader for the Agricultural Experiment Station and editor of Oregon’s Agricultural Progress.
Like an asteroid crashing into an isolated island, Richard Floyd changed the magazine’s evolutionary pace. Pretty much overnight, articles began to read like newspaper features. Light. Catchy. Out to grab people with no particular interest in agriculture or science.
Floyd only edited Oregon’s Agricultural Progress for a few years, but he hired like-minded editors to succeed him. Flipping through the magazine’s covers after 1970 you find photos of deer, beavers, truffles, a distance runner, “veggies” that fight cancer, a great blue heron gliding over a troubled wetland—even a great white shark—intermingled with covers showing traditional agricultural research topics.
The next year that stands out is 1986. That’s when a private, non-profit foundation created during the Depression to beef up funding for Experiment Station research decided the magazine could use beefing up. Some of the most prominent leaders in the history of Oregon agriculture made up the Agricultural Research Foundation’s board. They didn’t flinch when OAP’s editor asked for a grant so the staff of the modestly produced publication could add full color reproduction.
“I’d hate to try and sell my milk in a black and white carton,” said Lyle Hammack, owner of a Portland creamery and the board’s president.
The first color cover had a close-up photograph of an elderly Chinese man’s wrinkled face, along with the words “The Rim of Hope: Markets or Mirage?,” referring to agricultural trade on the Pacific Rim.
Oregon’s Agricultural Progress started connecting with lots of new readers, in addition to state residents directly involved with agriculture: Conservation-minded Oregonians; reporters and editors with state and national media (they often ran stories based on its articles); school teachers and students; patrons at medical offices, barber shops, banks and legal offices; leaders of state and national public agencies and private foundations that fund research.
No doubt the full color helped, but of course the Experiment Station’s research was still the star attraction.
Wouldn’t you be tempted to check out an article about researchers trying to save a critically ill Bengal tiger (at an Oregon wildlife park), learning about bacteria in the bellies of whales that held promise for cleaning up toxic spills, pinpointing plants in the Columbia Basin, and on the plains and mountains of Mexico and other countries, that could improve a wheat variety that contributed millions of dollars a year to the state economy?
Among the folks who worked on Oregon’s Agricultural Progress in its first half century, there are stories about the oddities of covering such research projects. A few examples:
* The writer and photographer who, because of a dead helicopter battery, spent a nervous, bone-chilling night trapped in the “Red Zone” near an ash-hissing Mount St. Helens. (They’d been flown in with researchers studying the explosive growth of dangerous microbes in lakes in the volcano’s blast zone.)
* The infamous “Whale of Catherine Creek” incident, when an OAP photographer high-centered after he squeezed into a wet suit and slipped into the swift, icy and surprisingly shallow northeastern Oregon stream. (He was intent on capturing the fish-eye perspective for an article about range scientists’ research with cattle and Chinook salmon.)
* The trip to Oregon’s Blue Mountains to gather information for an article about the grazing habits of elk, deer and cattle. Eventually that led some OAP staff members to a little commune on the steppes of Inner Mongolia in northern China to do a national public television program about an OSU graduate student and his family.
* Perhaps most gut-wrenching is the story of the designer who lost an entire issue of OAP with a flick of his finger, thanks to some new computer technology. (I seem to remember that Tom Weeks, whose innovative layouts have graced the pages of the magazine for years, recovered the files a day or two later—after he practically chewed off his fingernails.)
Despite that last experience, the publication hasn’t shied away from technology. Today there’s an online version.
“If you look at where Oregon’s Agricultural Progress started out, study it along the way, then where it is now, you can see pretty clearly how it’s changed with the times,” said Thayne Dutson, who as the current dean of OSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences and director of the Agricultural Experiment Station is, you might say, the magazine’s publisher.
“For one thing, the scope of what it covers is different. Straight production agriculture research is still important. But now the Experiment Station does a lot of research aimed at helping production agriculture operate within environmental regulations, water quality guidelines and that sort of thing. That’s agriculture in a different context. Then there are all the other economic, environmental and social issues our scientists work on.
“Oregon’s Agricultural Progress is one of the top magazines of its kind in the country, and that’s not just what I think. It’s won lots of national awards through the years—an amazing number. Its quality has been validated.”
I noticed the quality Dutson mentions the first time I saw Oregon’s Agricultural Progress, back in the late 70s. It wasn’t striking on the outside. There was an inner beauty, a clear sense of purpose. It didn’t contain the back-slapping, institutional puffery that ruins many university publications. Bob Mason has told me avoiding that pitfall was one of his original goals when he launched OAP half a century ago.