OSU Extension Education Program Assistant Rachel Suits didn’t know a lot about the extension service prior to attending graduate school at North Carolina State University.
But something clicked while studying for her masters in entomology.
“I worked with extension specialists as a grad student,” Suits said. “Both my advisors were extension specialists, so I worked with them to put on different programs, and put on programs myself.”
But she found the extension service combined two of her loves: Insects, and educating people about how to grow and eat healthy foods.
“I really liked it because it allows you to have that personal relationship with the people you’re educating,” she said. “The social and the hard science part uses both sides of my brain at the same time.”
Suits has been at the OSU Extension Office since June 2014, and is involved in three different programs: She’s coordinator for Master Gardeners in Hood River (and provides support on the Washington side of the river); works with outreach and education in both Hood River and Wasco counties; and teaches nutrition education to low-income families, with some farm-to-school and school garden work.
She’s currently collecting applications for the Master Gardener program, which are due Dec. 4. The program starts mid-January, with meetings Wednesday evenings and every other Saturday.
“It’s pretty intensive training that covers a wide variety of topics — entomology, soils, plant pathology, weed identification and management, water-wise gardening, and broader topics, more specific local topics, and some local presenters as well,” she said. Some of the presenters are from Oregon State University; others are locally based.
After undergoing training, the Master Gardeners “put back service hours into community outreach and educating the community on garden topics,” she said.
While interested persons must apply to the program, everyone is accepted. Typical applicants “usually want to volunteer in the community and get a kind of intensive education on gardening,” Suits said. The Master Gardeners work on a variety of projects, from managing the One Community Heath garden to manning an information booth at the Gorge Grown Farmers’ Market.
They will also oversee the revamping of the Mid Valley Elementary school garden to make it more user friendly, now in the development stage. It’s a project Suits is eager to begin.
“We’ll make it into more of an education tool with help from Gorge Grown, OSU Extension and the Master Gardeners,” she explained. “We’ll make it more user-friendly, which is kind of exciting. We don’t really know what it’s going to look like; we’re just in the planning stages, apply for seed money and grants to make it more accessible to teachers to utilize … We’re pretty excited about it.”
Another aspect of her job is outreach to small area farmers. She’s done a number of tours and given feedback “on the various aspects of what I’ve seen, but part of my job is to do research and make connections with those farmers to give them more access to resources,” she said, such as helping farmers apply for grants.
To that end, she’s putting together a program called Growing Farms, a holistic farm planning curriculum that she hopes to debut in February. She will co-facilitate the class with Gary Stevenson from OSU’s Center for Small Farms.
“We’ve got one of the higher-ups to help us out, which is going to be really awesome,” she said. “(Stevenson) is just a wealth of knowledge and a really great resource.”
Suits grew up in the San Joaquin Valley in California, and was a high school science teacher in Seattle from 2006 to 2010 before entering the graduate program at North Carolina State University. She moved to Hood River last year after landing the education program assistant job.
“I wanted to head north,” she said of moving to the Pacific Northwest. “I wanted to be in a place that was greener than California.” But the “dark and dreary” Seattle weather eventually convinced her it was time to move on.
“I really lucked out,” she said of her move to Hood River and her position with OSU Extension. “I know that. I convinced my husband that he would like the Pacific Northwest — he’s from Maine, so he’s pretty excited about the four seasons, but it’s not as dreary, so it’s worked out well for both of us.
“I’m just so grateful for the beauty of this place. It’s such an awesome place to live, and the community here is fantastic,” she said. “I’ve never lived in a place where the community felt so real.”