“Do you have concerns about your soil?” asks the voice on the radio. The voice, genial and reassuring, belongs to Weston Miller, Extension community horticulturist in the Portland Metro area.
Every Wednesday at 1:30 on XRAY-FM 91.1, Miller hosts a half-hour radio show, Grow PDX, when he fields calls from listeners worried about everything from battling slugs to coping with cadmium. He chats with guests such as OSU Extension garden guru Kym Pokorny and “Dr. Soil” (OSU’s James Cassidy). The show’s tagline: “Listen in to get the real dirt!”
Today, Miller’s guest is OSU soil scientist Dan Sullivan, and the topic is heavy metals in the soil. Sullivan explains that recent soil tests conducted by the Oregon Health Authority did not detect levels of soil-borne arsenic or cadmium in excess of state safety thresholds. “All these elements occur naturally in the soil,” Sullivan says. He explains the evolutionary adaptation of plants and why your carrots and potatoes are not likely to absorb heavy metals from the soil because the plants have no receptors in the cell membrane to take them in.
However, there are things that worried gardeners can do as precautions, Sullivan says. Adding lime to raise soil pH and tilling in compost or other organic matter can make metals less bioavailable and thus less likely to be taken up by plant tissues. “These are things good gardeners are likely to do anyway,” Sullivan says. Miller concurs, and adds that if you think you’re on a risky site, you can get your garden soil tested.
Miller, whose portfolio includes Extension’s urban and community horticulture and organic agriculture, slips on the urban-talk-show-host role like a well-worn garden glove. For him, radio is just one more way to engage with people in a city that cares about good food.
Miller coordinates Portland’s active cadre of OSU Extension Master Gardeners, who tend five demonstration gardens, growing food for local food pantries. Master Gardeners teach classes in Oregon Food Bank’s statewide Seed-to-Supper program, a six-week course on growing veggies on a limited budget.
Miller also runs an Extension program called Beginning Urban Farmer Apprenticeship, teaching first-time farmers how to grow organic produce and organize their own community-supported agriculture networks. Miller embraces this kind of grassroots food networking. A few years ago he was part of a city-county policy group that helped change the zoning code to make it easier to farm and sell vegetables within city limits.
“All these things are part and parcel of OSU Extension’s mission,” Miller says.
That may be true now more than ever. There’s a growing awareness, especially in bountiful western Oregon, that food represents more than individual nourishment—that it’s a globe-girdling system that affects the well-being of communities and the fairness and sustainability of farming practices.
“Food systems is a big idea, with a lot of interconnected parts,” says Lauren Gwin, Extension food systems specialist (a job title that’s surely a sign of the times) at OSU. Gwin’s thumbnail definition: “Community food systems integrate food production, processing, distribution, and consumption to improve the economic, environmental and social health of a particular place.”
Gwin helps run the OSU Center for Small Farms and Community Food Systems. Created in 2013, the center builds on two decades of OSU research and education directed at boosting the prosperity and sustainability of small-scale agriculture. One of its many offerings is Growing Farms: Successful Whole Farm Management, a training program for beginning farmers.
“The Center, and the Small Farms Program at its heart, are great examples of how we in Extension are thinking holistically about food,” says Gwin. “We’re on the cutting edge here at OSU.”
“I can tell you exactly when people started talking about food systems,” says Glenda Hyde. “It was the day the headlines announced that imported dog food was poisoning our dogs.”
Hyde, who runs the Master Food Preserver program in Deschutes County, is referring to a widespread recall in 2007 of contaminated pet foods manufactured in China. “For years everybody had been hearing about organic, local, back to the land,” says Hyde. “That quirky idea turned into a national trend on that day.”
Master Food Preservers teach people how to can and freeze fruits, vegetables, meats, poultry, and fish so that they are both wholesome and safe. “Safety is a big emphasis for us,” Hyde says. “Using a pressure canner properly, using an accurate recipe; these are very important.” Homemade salsa, she warns, is a particular culprit: done wrong, it’s “a recipe for botulism.”
Extension Master Food Preservers partner with Extension Master Gardeners at spring garden fairs. They judge canned and dried foods at the county fair, test pressure-canning gauges, and staff the statewide food-safety/preservation hotline (800-354-7319, open mid-July to mid-October).
Hyde’s volunteers in Deschutes County go a step beyond. Their collaborative work with the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs connects them to a vibrant food system that’s thousands of years old. Last spring, tribal member and Master Food Preserver Rosanna Sanders, program assistant at the OSUExtension Warm Springs office, expressed concern that tribal members were pressure-canning traditional roots and tubers without specific directions for processing times.
Hyde was uncertain whether these low-acid roots could be safely substituted for tested root vegetables in a pressure-canning recipe. She consulted OSU Extension microbiologist Mark Daeschel. Daeschel determined that the directions and processing times for roots and tubers commonly harvested in the Warm Springs area were the same as those for carrots and potatoes.
Sanders and Sara Rogers, her Extension colleague, gave a canning workshop in Warm Springs last April—coinciding with root-digging season—and showed participants how to can the traditional root called luksh according to Daeschel’s recommendations. Participants liked the result, and a jar of canned luksh was sent to the tribal council for evaluation and approval. The workshop, says Hyde, was a satisfying blend of tribal wisdom and modern science.
The contoured hills along the Columbia River Gorge, dotted with fruit trees and rippled with grapevines, may look like the Garden of Eden. “But most of that produce is grown for export, and it’s very seasonal,” says Lauren Kraemer. “People are surprised to learn that our area has big problems with food insecurity.”
Kraemer, who runs Extension’s Family and Community Health programs in Hood River and Wasco counties, collaborates with many other food-related community efforts, greatly extending their reach and impact. For example, she’s a board member of the Gorge Grown Food Network, which worked with farmers, farmers markets, grocery stores, and local doctors to create Veggie Rx, a program to get fresh food into the hands of low-income people and keep food dollars in the community. A doctor “prescribes” $20 worth of fresh fruits and vegetables weekly to an eligible low-income person, who fills the prescription at a farmer’s market or local grocery.
Kraemer and her colleagues invite the Veggie Rx clients to community suppers at the Asbury Our Redeemer Partnership church in Hood River, site of the FISH food bank. Suppers are followed by a cooking class. The church also has a community garden in back. “Our hope and vision,” said Kraemer, “is to get folks to come and have fun working in the garden, and then harvest the food and cook it together, and then stay and learn about budgeting or cooking or healthy eating. In this way we can start to transform people’s relationship to food and empower them to be active participants in their own good nourishment.”
Sara Runkel, another Extension educator with “food systems” in her title, directs both the Small Farms program and the Master Food Preserver program in Douglas County. “In my small farms role, I work with farmers who want to make value-added products and sell them at farmers markets or local restaurants or stores.” And as the go-to Master Food Preserver, she helps them make products that are safe and legal.
Right now she’s working with the Roseburg newspaper to create a local food guide. She also brokers deals between local farmers and potential buyers such as grocery stores, restaurants, and school districts—a role that requires management of expectations on both sides. “It takes a lot of relationship-building,” Runkel says.
Kelly Streit would agree. Hired in 2011 to manage Family and Community Health programs in Clackamas County, Streit revamped her Master Food Preserver program to include workshops on basic household food management. “Teaching people how to can is great,” she says, “but I’m working with people who are trying not to run out of food before the end of the month.”
Streit’s volunteers have taught low-income people how to grow their own vegetables and how to shop and cook on a budget. To reach her target clients, she worked with county authorities to take her programs into low-income housing projects.
“You can’t just send out flyers and expect people to come,” she says. “You have to put in the time to build relationships. You have to put your face in their face.”
For Streit and her Extension colleagues, the road from “food” to “food systems” isn’t always straight or smooth. But it’s a road worth taking, she believes, because it embodies Extension’s core mission of taking research-based knowledge out to the people.
“I hired on to be a change-maker,” says Streit. “So I reach out to colleagues in the community. I say to them; ‘I need your help.’ I’ve learned that I have to get the right partners to the table. Then I make sure we’re communicating, so we’re not duplicating each other’s work.
“And then we go ahead and do work that’s meaningful, impactful—work that makes a difference.”