If one word can summarize Phil VanBuskirk's 32-year tenure at Oregon State University's Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center, it is "transition."
From the decline of a politically powerful pear industry to the rise of wine grapes, paralleling a fading timber economy giving way to a nascent technology movement, VanBuskirk has witnessed relentless change. He's also seen approval of a tax base that put the research facility on sound financial footing.
VanBuskirk will soon hand over the reins to Rich Roseberg, a former Rogue Valley associate who has been stationed in Klamath County. VanBuskirk was hired at a time when pears were synonymous with the Rogue Valley, not merely because of Harry & David, with 9,000 acres covered with orchards and 11 packing houses along the railroad track.
"The growers in this region ruled the industry with an iron fist," VanBuskirk said. "They knew how to play politics. They came together and agreed ... and whatever they needed to vote on — how to market pears or fund research — those decisions were always made before regional meetings."
Although production hasn't diminished greatly, thanks to doubling and tripling of trees per acre, there are now fewer than 5,000 acres of pear orchards, with packing houses whittled down to Harry & David and Naumes Inc.
Production and transportation costs, along with increased foreign competition, have contributed to the diminishing local fresh pear industry. VanBuskirk also attributes application of state land-use laws with devaluing orchard property, meaning farmers had less collateral when seeking bank loans.
"It made it difficult for people in the industry to obtain loans," he said. "No one is standing in line to buy farm land. Yes there are a lot of young entrepreneurs trying to make a go at it, but they are struggling at this point because of overproduction. They are producing more than they can sell locally."
When the apple industry got hit by Alar issues in the early 1990s, Washington growers began planting Bosc and red pears, crops long championed in the Rogue Valley. What Washington growers didn't plant as much, however, was Comice, Harry & David's bread-and-butter variety, which are marketed as Royal Rivieras.
"That left us as the No. 1 grower of Comice pears, but you can only utilize so much," he said. "Their root stock is fragile, and the pears mark and damage easily in transport. That's why Comice is such a niche market for Harry & David, they can grow a lot of pears locally and pack them before they're transported."
Between 1995 and 2005, growers used to attacking pests with tried-and-true pesticides were persuaded to take a different approach against codling moths, twospotted mites and pear psylla.
"The pear industry used really toxic materials when we first came," he said. "But it was the codling moth material that caused them to get what we called a pesticide treadmill. If they sprayed for that, then these other two pests came up because they eliminated the beneficial insects. It took 10 years to help them move to the use of pheromones to disrupt codling moth (reproduction). If you could control the codling moth without the chemicals, then you could also help control the other two pests. It made a major change to the industry, and we reduced chemical use by over 75 percent. That was a major process, not only here in Southern Oregon, but in Washington and wherever pears were grown. But it took 10 years to work with the grower to help them understand how it could be used and how it works."
While modern wine-grape pioneers preceded him by a decade, the extension service has been a constant resource for the burgeoning industry.
"When I came here, growers found it difficult to even sell their grapes at times, and the majority of time they almost gave them away. Now we're the fastest growing wine region in the state based on acreage.
Like everything else, the issues have changed with time.
Once the biggest concern was powdery mildew, an early spring disease attacking leaves and grapes. But as the industry has matured, mealybugs and leafhoppers have found their way up from California.
"As many people move to Southern Oregon, they buy a small piece of acreage," he said. "They don't know what to do with their 10, 20 or 40 acres of land with their homes. They look at wine grapes as a future crop. What we really need is the addition of one and possibly two major wineries to move into the area."
Raised in Ohio and then going to work for the U.S. Forest Service in West Virginia, VanBuskirk took a chance when he made a transcontinental jump to the Rogue Valley.
"When I took the job here, people advised me to think twice because it was destined to be closed," he said.
When he was promoted director in 2003, things were no less bleak. Twice before his arrival, the budgetary ax was ready to fall, and the threat would surface twice more.
"The experiment station was supposed to close that year," he said. "The dean had already moved Rich Roseberg out to Klamath Falls and David Sugar to Hood River. I was told to turn out the lights and lock the doors."
But the agricultural outpost survived, latching on to some grants and contracts. The dark shadow finally dissipated in May 2014 when voters passed a measure creating a tax district providing financial stability.
"When 75 percent of the voters passed the service district, it was phenomenal," he said. "It was rewarding that people saw the value."