As the COVID-19 pandemic hit Oregon, faculty in the College of Agricultural Sciences responded by creating trusted resources for the public.
Victory for Gardening
For decades, the Oregon State University Extension Service relied on face-to-face interactions to provide gardening education to Oregonians. That has all changed during the COVID-19 crisis.
On March 18, Gail Langellotto and Signe Danler discussed potential responses to the pandemic with their colleagues in the Department of Horticulture and the Extension Master Gardener program.
Langellotto is the statewide coordinator for the Master Gardener program; Danler teaches and manages the online, on-demand Extension Master Gardeners Short Course Series.
They decided to temporarily waive the $45 fee for the series’ vegetable course. On March 20, they announced it on the Master Gardener Facebook page. Prior to the post, 15 people had enrolled in the course between January 1 and mid-March.
The Facebook post went viral, and enrollment numbers have been stunning.
Overnight, more than 1,500 people signed up for the course. And they kept signing up. By the morning of April 1, the number passed 17,600. By mid-April, it was nearly 30,000.
The Facebook post has been shared 26,000 times and drawn nearly 12,000 likes and comments.
By late June, over 40,000 had enrolled in the course.
“Because the Facebook post went viral, we’re also reaching lots of folks from across the country who may not know that they have a university Extension office in their own backyard,” Langellotto said. “So, I’m also trying to use this as an opportunity to introduce folks to their local Extension office.”
That popular self-guided course is just one way to learn about gardening. After completing volunteer training via Zoom, Master Gardeners around the state continue to attract interest for their virtual education offerings. For example, Portland metro area Master Gardeners – the largest chapter in the state – held its speaker/lecture series on Zoom, and a talk on pollinators drew 230 attendees.
Megan Wickersham, Master Gardener coordinator in Hood River County, introduced a new process that allows community plant clinic questions to be answered remotely. The Extension website directs the public to add all relevant information to an online form created by Master Gardener Christie Bradley. This form is forwarded to a collaborative spreadsheet for Master Gardeners to answer.
The Western Regional Center to Enhance Food Safety, housed in the College of Agricultural Sciences, quickly created an online resource with information and fact sheets about the pandemic in relation to food operations, including farms, gardens, fresh produce, food banks, food service, grocery stores and home/community.
The resource included information on topics such as:
• Farms, gardens, and produce.
• Grocery stores.
• Food industry resources.
• Food banks.
The center is one of four regional centers that were created to coordinate food safety training networks and training efforts resulting from the implementation of the 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). The center held its annual meeting in May virtually, with 90 food safety specialists from 15 Western states and territories attending. A special session focused on challenges and responses to the pandemic on farms, in processing facilities, and in food service and retail establishments.
Food safety videos for farm workers have also recently been released. These videos cover the basics of food born pathogens, hygiene, cleaning, and sanitizing. The audio is in Spanish with English subtitles.
Small Farms, Local Food
Similarly, the OSU Extension Small Farms Program quickly published a website in English and Spanish called “Small Farms, Local Food and COVID-19.” Some topics on the site include:
• Hygiene and food safety practices to prevent infection.
• What farmers should communicate to their employees and to their customers.
• Online sales systems if farmers’ markets are closed or if the operator closes their farm stand.
• Resources for financial assistance due to COVID-19 business hardship.
• In addition, to support farmers adding or expanding sales through Community. Supported Agriculture (CSA) boxes, and to meet high demand for CSAs, the Small Farms team collaborated with the Portland Area CSA Coalition on a blog, “CSA Information for Farmers.”
On the Oregon coast, Lincoln County Extension launched a website to connect residents directly with local food producers. The Lincoln County Food Guide offers an up-to-date list of local food growers, ranchers and fishermen who are doing farm-direct and dock-direct sales.