Six lanes of Portland traffic filled the rear-view mirror as the van headed east on I-84. On the left, the Columbia flowed through its gorge below giant windmills scattered like toys, turning with the breezes. After a few hours, sagebrush took the place of Douglas-fir and fern.
The riders from Portland’s Sunnyside Environmental School had reason to be nervous as they watched the familiar give way to the unknown. And it wasn’t just the landscape that would change.
The 15 middle-school students were already immersed in a life-broadening experience: the 4-H Urban-Rural Exchange program, sponsored by Oregon State University Extension Service. For five years, host families from Grant, Klamath, and Wallowa counties have opened their homes and lives (sometimes nervously) to city kids. In turn, Multnomah County families introduce rural students to life in Portland.
Wallowa County in northeast Oregon was the destination for one of this year’s four exchanges. The young guests from the city arrived in the thick of calving season, a dynamic leap into ranch life.
Deep in the Wallowa Mountains, hosts Tom and Kelly Birkmaier and a crew of friends rounded up 65 calves for branding. While unhappy mother cows bawled in the distance, the job was to brand, inoculate, and ear-tag the calves as quickly as possible while muscling them securely into a metal chute.
This was no spectator sport for Portland middle-schoolers Zoe O’Toole and Birch Clark. Although reticent at first (“I’m not really sure how I feel about branding,” Zoe had confided earlier), the girls gamely took turns with both the branding iron and the syringe.
Down in the valley at another host home, a cow notched up her tail, and three other city students learned what that meant: the cow was ready to give birth. Lanie Novick and her middle-school colleagues watched in awe as the calf dropped from its mother’s womb while Lanie docu- mented the event on her cell phone. Ramona and Charley Phillips, who hosted the girls at their ranch near Joseph, were impressed with the students’ enthusiasm and unending questions as they collected eggs each morning and tossed baled hay from the back of a truck to a “sea of cows.”
Calving season knows no time clock. After midnight, the girls bumped along with the Phillipses in their pickup truck, scanning the range with spotlights in search of cows with newborns. The girls learned that if they spotted cows bawling and bunched up around their calves, there might be predators such as cougars or wolves stalking nearby.
Part of each exchange includes spending a day at the host school. Portland students Morgaen Schall and Joseph Unfred swelled enrollment of the one-room schoolhouse in Imnaha by 40 percent on the day they went to class with the school’s five local students.
Morgaen and Joseph both love working with horses in Portland but prefer being “in the middle of nowhere.” Their stay was not romantic—mending fences seldom is—but they enjoyed the outdoor work, and to show their appreciation, the two boys made a special Sunday breakfast for their hosts, Cynthia and Dan Warnock and their three sons.
More than half of the urban-rural exchange students have kept in touch with their host families. Sometimes during the summer they cross back over the cultural divide to reunite with their hosts and to share the experience with their parents. The exchange expands when parents get involved. Thirty families in Portland now buy beef directly from a host rancher as part of a new beef cooperative, an idea that grew from the young people’s exchange.
“The basic mission of 4-H is education for youth,” said Jed Smith, a 4-H faculty member at the Extension office in Klamath Falls. “But 4-H also involves parents in Extension education. When you get young people in the conversation, you’ve got a good start towards better understanding between remote rural Oregon and the rest of the state.” Smith wants his urban visitors to experience first-hand the life of rural ranchers and farmers. “They see that ranch families are good with animal husbandry, they’re responsible stewards of the land, but they face different challenges than urban families,” he said.
One of those challenges is the reintroduction of wolves, which sparked the creation of the urban-rural exchange. In 2005, after Sunnyside students completed a class project on how westward U.S. settlement affected wildlife, the students gave testimony at a state Fish and Wildlife Commission hearing in favor of reintroducing wolves. The urban students didn’t expect that their opinions would spark controversy in rural Oregon, where ranchers bemoaned that city dwellers didn’t understand rural life. To foster better understanding across the state, OSU 4-H and Sunnyside joined forces to create the first Urban-Rural Exchange in 2006.
Everyone involved that first year, from both sides of the Cascades, ventured into unfamiliar territory. At least one rancher would have pulled out at the last minute if the city kids were not already on their way. However, at the end of five days of sharing chores and meals together, both students and families described the exchange as one of the best experiences of their lives.
Each year, some of the city students come home thinking that farming and ranching would be professions they’d like to pursue. “We want them to learn about the care of natural resources from a rural perspective,” said Maureen Hosty, the OSU 4-H Extension faculty member who coordinates the exchange. “Sometimes they take it to a personal level. They want to live there.”
Fewer rural students visiting Portland express a strong desire to relocate to the city. Perhaps city living is an acquired taste. Dylan Denton and Trevor Wentz, both from Wallowa County, enjoyed their day exploring mass transit and gliding over the skyline by tram. But considering that a square mile in Portland is home to 3,939 people, and in Wallowa County, it’s home to 2, they had to conclude, “There are too many people!” Nevertheless, according to their host family mom, Dylan and Trevor readily took to “a crash course” in riding bicycles in city traffic, even while pedaling in cowboy boots.
Portland hosts helped their rural visitors understand sustainable urban living. They climbed to the top of city buildings to see rooftop landscapes that temper winter stormwater and summer heat. They visited the city’s massive recycling system. And they walked through one of Portland’s 20 farmers markets, where they ran into a potato vendor from faraway Wallowa County.
More city kids have made the exchange than their rural counterparts, and Hosty encourages more students from rural Oregon to visit Portland. “We want to build a strong bridge of understanding that goes both ways,” she said. The bustle of city life contrasts with the quiet of dinner time after a long day’s work on the ranch.
“We have a lot more in common than we realize,” Hosty said. “But if we don’t spend some time walking in each other’s shoes, then misunderstandings will continue to divide our state.” The 4-H Urban-Rural Exchange can make a difference. “Kids are leading the way and are willing to spend some time to learn. And the real learning happens in family homes at the dinner table.”