Local Extension educator Bob Olen and St. Louis County Master Gardener Catherine Winter survey University research plots at Glensheen Mansion on Lake Superior in Duluth. As interest in locally grown foods grows, Olen teaches Master Gardeners and others which plant varieties can thrive in northern Minnesota's frigid Zone 3.
From research to rewards
Local Extension educator taps U resources to benefit northern Minnesota growers
Growing specialty crops is never easy, but cold climate and lake winds make growing them on Minnesota's North Shore nothing short of courageous. Luckily, St. Louis County growers have Bob Olen on their side. For 30 years, the local Extension educator has conducted cold-hardiness research, tapping University resources to help level the playing field for northern growers, while meeting the burgeoning demand for locally produced food.
"When you say those two words in St. Louis County—'Bob Olen'— well, the name is synonymous with agriculture and gardening," says County Commissioner Keith Nelson. A grower himself, Nelson has firsthand knowledge of the benefits of the county's investment in a local Extension educator position like Olen's.
Olen is one of nearly 40 local Extension educators and 125 4-H program coordinators funded by counties and local partners to supplement Extension's statewide research and programs and address specific county needs. As a member of Extension's Commercial Vegetable and Fruit Production Team, Olen researches protection systems and season extenders such as high tunnels, which can help farmers take advantage of competitive pricing at the beginning of the season.
St. Louis County Master Gardeners Marjorie Stalker (left) and Catherine Winter help local Extension educator Bob Olen weigh and measure produce from University research plots at Glensheen Mansion.
He also conducts extensive varietal trials, sorting through the hundreds of varieties available for any given crop and using his research plots to determine which best suit northern Minnesota conditions. These trials help local growers make informed decisions. "When people have questions, I can show them the varieties growing side-by-side so they can see the difference," Olen says.
The research plots fill more than an educational need. Olen and the Extension Master Gardeners with whom he works donate the produce—often thousands of pounds—to Duluth-area Second Harvest food shelves. "Fresh produce is often expensive to buy, especially for those already struggling to put food on their tables," says Shaye Moris, Second Harvest Northern Food Bank's executive director. "Bob helps us get fresh produce to people in need."
As part of his Extension networking efforts, Olen also reaches out to backyard gardeners. As the calls about fruit and vegetable gardening multiplied, he began tailoring his popular family-gardening course. Because attendees cited economics as the No. 1 reason to grow more food for themselves, Olen set up an experiment to determine which crops produced the highest return per square yard of garden space.
The thirst for information has never been so great, Olen says. As interest in local foods and food security grows, demand for Extension's work grows.
Grower Doug Hoffbauer is not surprised that Olen's knowledge is such a sought-after commodity. He is "a great contributor to our quality of life," Hoffbauer says. "He is the only one doing Zone 3 research in the lower 48."
Being part of the community he serves allows Olen to identify needs early, set up related research, and then develop the educational programs to bring those results to the community. He adapts the University's vast resources to the most pressing local needs.
When counties partner with Extension to support local educator positions in this way, the rewards are infinite, Nelson says. "If you don't have boots on the ground in a community—if you don't have that relationship—you can't accomplish what Bob Olen accomplishes," he says.
For more information, visit the Extension Commercial Vegetable and Fruit Production program.
Unique model results in 'win-win-win' for Lake County
By organizing shoreline stabilization projects up and down the North Shore, Extension educator Wayne Seidel helps ensure that future generations get to enjoy Lake Superior.
Lake County natural resources educator Wayne Seidel has a knack for bringing people together to get things done.
"He's a tremendous mediator," says Lake County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) supervisor Tom Gelineau. "He has this ability to mediate things to a positive note and get things taken care of."
Much of Seidel's work focuses on education on water-quality issues like stormwater management and erosion and sediment pollution in Lake Superior. His position is jointly funded by Extension and the SWCD, a model he says helps him access University resources and also bring grant money and other funding into Lake County, population 11,000.
Jim Linscheid, a member of the Water Plan Advisory Committee, stresses the importance of having a local Extension educator with grassroots connections. "Wayne has developed rapport with all segments of the community," Linscheid says. "To do that takes frequent face-to-face time."
Seidel organized Lake Superior shoreline stabilization projects using waste blast rock from tunnel construction along Highway 61. His resourcefulness and innovative thinking protected private lands and public recreation areas from erosion and helped the contractor dispose of waste rock, while the state benefited from the efficient use of cost-share funds.
Seidel calls these types of projects "win-win-win." Lake County heartily agrees.
For more information, visit Extension Water Resource Management programs.
Local Extension educator Dan Martens (left) visits the Stearns County farm of Scott Gathje to help assess the alfalfa crop.
Hands down, it's about 'HANDS-ON' in ag country
For Stearns County crop producer Scott Gathje, Dan Martens' work as a local Extension educator is a necessity. Gathje works with Martens to determine the first cut of his hay crop, a crucial decision that can affect profit for the rest of the season.
As a member of Extension's Forages and Commodity Crops teams, Martens has access to the latest research to help increase producers' profitability. "The hands-on aspect is really important," Gathje says. "Dan's out in the field looking around instead of just taking it out of a book." Having someone connected with University research who is also invested in local issues is a great combination, Gathje says.
Martens' position is jointly funded by Stearns, Benton and Morrison counties to serve the agricultural needs that cross county lines. Good communication between counties is key to making this model successful, Benton County Commissioner Joe Wollak says.
"This area is around 80 percent agricultural land," Wollak says. "Having someone local is just immeasurable."
For more information, visit Extension production agriculture programs.