No matter where she goes, Anita Azarenko is never far from a little farm in southern Germany. The teacher, scientist, extension specialist, mother, wife and daughter visits those 12 acres almost every day, in her mind.
"I'm a first generation American. My father is a Russian émigré and my mother is a German émigré," explains Azarenko, a professor in OSU's horticulture department. "I'm also an army brat. My father spent 21 years in the U.S. Army.
"He was stationed in Frankfurt when I was a girl, and every weekend we could we visited my grandmother, my mom's mom, to help her and our uncles and cousins and other relatives out on the farm."
Her grandmother, whose husband died many years earlier, lived near the small community of Würzburg, in Bavaria. It was a subsistence farm, with livestock and several crops. The goal was simple: Raise enough to get through the next winter.
"Adults and kids pitched in. We worked our rears off," says Azarenko. "The children would help thresh, bag grain, take beer and lunch to the adults, that sort of thing. That and the family celebration of ... living, I guess you could say, after the work was done had a big impact on me. To tell you the truth, it's why I'm in the job I'm in today."
What job is that?
"I really have four," she says: "Researcher, teacher and extension pomologist [fruit growing specialist], plus I'm co-director of an undergraduate major called bioresources research. In my spare time," she adds, smiling, "my husband and I farm."
Azarenko came to OSU in 1986 after receiving a Ph.D. in horticulture from the University of Maryland. Her emphasis was plant physiology.
"I'm actually a woody plant, or tree fruit, physiologist," she explains. "I've always been interested in the application and integration of new knowledge."
Her research through OSU's Agricultural Experiment Station focuses on hazelnuts and cherries. She evaluates varieties, searches for practices that will optimize production, and studies the flowering of hazelnuts.
When she wears an Extension Service hat, she collaborates with growers and others in the hazelnut and cherry industries, figuring out how to apply research findings effectively.
Her teaching includes courses with names like "Temperate Zone Fruit Production and Physiology." The undergraduate major she co-directs with OSU biochemist John Hays, sponsored by OSU's Colleges of Agricultural Sciences, Forestry and Science, gives students an opportunity to learn by doing research.
"I really enjoy my job and I invest a lot of my spirit in it," says Azarenko. "I'd say my passion these days is blending the various roles. I think my teaching is better because of the research and the extension work with the agriculture industry."
When she leaves campus, she drives about 40 miles southeast of Corvallis to a 160-acre farm just outside Sweet Home in the foothills of the Cascades. It's half timber and half cleared land.
"About 60 percent of the cleared land is in pasture. My husband and I direct-market a few beef cattle," she explains. "We also have three acres of apples, cherries and plums and four acres of hazelnuts and are putting in four more. We sell directly to farmers' markets and organic food stores.
"We didn't feel we could compete with established fruit growers in the central Willamette Valley. Certified organic is where we think there's a market niche."
If it all sounds hectic, that's OK. Azarenko, the oldest of four daughters, places a high value on keeping busy. That came from two powerful examples:
Her father left Russia when he was 15 as a prisoner of war and was conscripted into the German army. He first met her mother, the youngest of 13 children, after World War II while roaming around Germany trying to avoid capture by American or British soldiers.
"If you could prove you were without a country you could join the American army," Azarenko explains. Her mother, who'd learned English in school, helped her future husband, a farmhand who spoke Russian and German, fill out an application.
Her father emigrated to the United States in 1951, serving as a mine detection specialist in the Korean War. But he kept in touch with the woman in Germany who'd helped him fill out the application. In 1956, he returned and married her.
"Watching my parents when I was growing up, it shaped me so much," Azarenko says. "I learned that you have a part in what happens to you, in your successes and failures, and that you just never give up. My parents are proud of their accomplishments. They earned them. Their motto is kind of like the Nike slogan, 'Just Do It,' don't whine. They were underdogs, and to this day I root for underdogs."
Some days Azarenko feels like an underdog, just a little.
"My mother raised four daughters and never worked outside the home," she says. "I love to cook, sew, prepare for the holidays. But I like working outside the home, too. So it's been frustrating at times, especially when my son was young. I felt like I was caught between the example of her world and this new one."
That may be another reason why her thoughts often take Anita Azarenko to a little farm in Germany, and a world where the challenges, though huge, were clearcut.