Strange Brew

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This web site is a worm hole into a universe of practical and offbeat information.

Loretta Rielly’s lawn looks bad. Really bad. It’s brown and weedy, and it needs help. "But if the answer is more water and fertilizer—forget it. There’s got to be a better way!" says Rielly.

Luckily, she knows where to go for answers. Logging onto the web, she searches for "lawns." Within minutes, she’s learned about ecolawns, a mix of grasses and broadleaf plants that require less fertilizer, water and mowing than conventional turfgrass.

She dreams of a soft groundcover wandering gently among flower beds. Where weeds now reign, she sees a textured carpet—a mix of grasses, yarrow, shamrock, clover and sweet alyssum.

Grass with flowers blooming.

Visitors to the EESC web site can learn about the ecolawn, which needs less watering, fertilizing and mowing than turfgrass lawns. Photo: Tom Gentle

It’s a short road from dreams to action. Rielly is soon on her way to buy seed, and her ecolawn is one step closer to reality.

Rielly, a Corvallis homeowner, has relied on the Web to help with many gardening projects. The treasure trove of information she has found is the Extension and Experiment Station Communications (EESC) web site— home of publications, gardening tips, news, audio programs and feature stories. Entering the site is like stepping into a library on a desktop.

The site is a growing link between OSU researchers and educators and Oregonians, providing information when it’s needed, where it’s needed. Instead of waiting for an Extension publication to arrive in the mail, visitors get it with the click of a mouse. You might call it education-on-demand, a must in today’s society.

"When people want information, they want it right now," said Joy King, office specialist at the Coos County Extension office.

King should know. When the phone on her desk rings, it’s often a customer wanting to order an Extension publication. Whether the caller needs 4-H record sheets, a cranberry fertilizer guide or instructions for making pickles, King asks, "Do you have Internet access?" If so, she introduces the caller to the EESC web site. Within minutes, the customer has the information in hand.

Young people thrive on this independence. When a group of Baker County 4-H members wanted to create a rope halter for a steer, they downloaded the instructions and just did it. "They love being resourceful and self-reliant," said Debbie Riggs, secretary in the Baker County Extension office.

Among the site’s greatest fans are OSU’s Master Gardener volunteers. Worried homeowners bring them an astonishing assortment of sick leaves, bizarre bugs, bare twigs and mysterious cocoons. The questions are always the same: "What is this? What should I do about it?"

Woman fertilizing plants.

How do you fertilize various plants effectively? The EESC web site has lots of practical information and timely tips for Oregonians interested in gardening. Photo: Tom Gentle

In many counties, Master Gardeners turn to the web for answers. Instead of poring through reference books, they search the EESC site for pests, pruning, fertilizing and just about every other conceivable gardening topic. "We introduce new members to the web during training and emphasize that they should rely on research-based sites. We tell them to search the EESC site first," said Susannah Tenny, Tillamook County Master Gardener.

The site is packed with information about creepy-crawly things—blood-sucking ticks, slimy slugs and garbage-eating worms. Adventurous gardeners can even find instructions for growing exotic crops such as kiwifruit and edible Japanese soybeans.

Microscopic wood tick.

This Rocky Mountain wood tick, photographed through a scanning electron microscope, is one of four types of the blood-sucking insect that commonly feed on humans. Its body is swollen after a meal. The EESC web site tells Oregonians how to identify and remove ticks. Photo: Photo Researchers, Inc.

Food lovers, too, find plenty to drool over. A video demonstration by cookbook author and food columnist Jan Roberts-Dominguez shows how to dress up corn-on-the-cob with mouth-watering chipotle chile butter. At OSU’s Sensory Science Laboratory, taste testers rate noodles on their slurp and orange juice on its tang. Tips for Thanksgiving cooks tell how to keep the holiday turkey from becoming a bacteria-laden time bomb that sickens the entire family.

Armchair travelers can step through the site’s magic door to a world full of exotic creatures, awe-inspiring landscapes and modern-day explorers. They can spend a day on a raft looking for blue whales off the California coast with scientists from OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center. In bone-chilling Antarctica, ice-crusted OSU scientists tell how they search for clues to life on other planets by studying bacteria in a frozen, Martian-like lake.

Closer to home, the web takes visitors to dusty, sagebrush-speckled Harney County, where endless miles of empty road stretch to the horizon. There, at the Eastern Oregon Agricultural Research Center in Burns, scientists are studying a frightening baby boom—a plague of western juniper spreading across eastern Oregon and sucking up precious water everywhere it goes.

Farther north, an electronic stroll through a sweet-scented pear orchard at the Mid-Columbia Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Hood River is a perfect spring fantasy. OSU researchers there share how they are adapting Italian pest control methods to reduce pesticide use in Oregon’s tree fruit industry.

Real-world travelers can also get ready for adventure on the site. Its publications on West Coast whales are a must-read for binocular-toting tourists headed for a whale-watching cruise. Besides explaining how to sight whales and tell one species from another, they are full of fascinating whale facts.

Woman and children hiking by lake.

Want to make backpacking and camping safer and more interesting? The EESC web site offers a publication called "Safe Water Practices in the Back Country" online at no charge, and has a detailed preview of an OSU Extension Service book titled "Trees to Know in Oregon." Photo: Eyewire, Inc.

Backpackers dreaming of a sip from a cool mountain stream should think twice and visit the web first. That crystal-clear water may be teeming with millions of tiny bacteria just waiting to make unwary campers sick. Extension’s publication on safe water practices in the back county can save a lot of misery.

Perhaps the real nuggets of gold on the site, however, are its practical, common-sense tips for dealing with life’s challenges right at home—gardening with stiff knees and arthritic fingers, keeping in touch with distant grandchildren, choosing a nursing home for an aging parent or hammering out a child custody agreement.

Albany resident Chet Houser found the site through a garden story in the newspaper, and now he’s hooked. He’s used it for everything from growing garlic to building a birdfeeder. "The web site gave me a great tip about boron. Instead of paying $17 for a bottle at a garden center, just buy borax at the supermarket. It’s a lot cheaper," he said.

For many people, the site’s key benefit is saving time. Bob Schroeder, an agricultural consultant at Western Farm Service in Tangent, advises clients on crops as diverse as peppermint and squash, and he can’t spend hours searching for answers. This winter, when a grower needed advice on spring wheat, Schroeder found it on the EESC site. It saved him time and gave his client a fast answer.

Although the site specializes in quick advice on everyday matters, its developers aren’t afraid to tackle bigger issues as well. Social, economic, human and political factors often clash, as they do in "A Portrait of Poverty in Oregon." First published as a tabloid insert in newspapers throughout the state, it has found new life on the web. The on-line version is enhanced by statistics on income and employment in each Oregon county.

Woman holding child.

The web site is laced with information about how to raise children, and tips on how families can spend their money efficiently. Photo: Peter Krupp

For David Foster, policy strategist at the Oregon Department of Housing and Community Services, the "Portrait of Poverty" was just what he needed. Charged with developing the Oregon Economic Wellbeing web site, a multi-agency site on poverty in Oregon, he wanted to reach both ordinary citizens and professionals in the field. "For the casual browser interested in poverty issues, the tabloid is perfect. We just linked to it, and part of my job was done," said Foster.

Elsewhere, Oregonians struggle with issues such as salmon, drought and drinking water safety. In "Paving Paradise," OSU agricultural economists explore the divisive land-use issues facing Oregon as the state’s population swells and urban growth boundaries bump into cauliflower fields. "A Snapshot of Salmon in Oregon" looks at the complex human and natural factors affecting the state’s salmon populations.

Two people riding horses.

Horses are popular in Oregon and the EESC web site reflects that. There's information on how much Oregonians spend annually on horses, how to keep your horse healthy, and how to deal with colic, parasites and many other common medical problems of horses. Photo: Dennis Wolverton

When new threats arise, the response is fast; this year’s threatened drought quickly led to several new water conservation publications. Ellen Sadler, advertising director for the Forest Grove News-Times, welcomed that addition. "People are asking, ‘What if we can’t water our lawn? Will it die?’ We need answers," she said.

Sadler discovered the Extension site just in time for the News-Times’ spring home and garden section. With a limited staff, writing original material is difficult. The site proved a gold mine for her. "Wow! There’s all kinds of stuff in here!" she said. As a result, the 2001 home and garden section featured stories on topics as diverse as hummingbirds and night-blooming plants—straight from the web.

The site averages more than 15,000 visits per week. Gardening season brings a flurry of action on pages about moles, slugs, poison oak, and roses. By August, visits to canning and freezing pages will jump as gardeners struggle to cope with their bounty. December favorites include life-saving tips for keeping the family Christmas tree fire-safe.

Numbers aren’t everything, however. The real measure of success is customer feedback. "Sometimes, when people come in to buy a publication but learn they can get it from the web for free, they leave the office almost skipping," said Elaine Pearcey, office coordinator in Yamhill County.

There’s a downside to popularity, though. Gardeners often e-mail the site’s developers with questions such as "Can you propagate roses from a florist’s bouquet?" They forward questions to OSU specialists, who are sometimes amazed—or amused—by the requests. "I get questions from all over the world," said Dan Edge, Extension wildlife specialist. "People want me to tell them about hummingbirds in Australia." In another case, a teacher in Nevada asked where she could buy slugs to raise for a class project.

Deer peering through flowering bushes.

Landscaping vegetation around your house can be a tasty buffet for deer and other wildlife. The EESC web site has information on how to protect the plants—and wildlife. Photo: Index Stock Imagery, Inc.

The web site is created and nurtured by a team of 10 faculty and staff in OSU’s Department of Extension and Experiment Station Communications. Never satisfied, they continue to envision a bigger and better site. Ask about their dreams for the future, and they rattle off a wish list a mile long. Inevitably, someone says, "Wouldn’t it be cool to...?"

Some of the features visitors can expect in the future include:

o More video, sound and animation

o On-line ordering of print publications

o More materials designed specifically for on-line learning

Such dreams keep the web team enthusiastic, but occasionally overwhelmed, as they struggle to find time to pursue the possibilities. A web site is like having a baby, they say. Once it’s born, it’s with you for good. The work—and the fun—never ends; it just changes as the baby grows up.

As they say, "Wouldn’t it be cool to...?"


When you visit the EESC web site, you'll find:

  • More than 900 free, downloadable publications on aging, agriculture, children, family finance, forestry, gardening, nature, nutrition and the environment
  • News and feature stories about OSU Extension Service and Agricultural Experiment Station activities
  • Hundreds of gardening tips and audio programs
  • Catalog of publications for sale
  • A multimedia-enhanced version of this magazine

Published in: Innovations, People