After extensive travels for agricultural work in the Soviet Union in the 1970s and later in Europe and South America, Steve Renquist brought his experience and knowledge to Douglas County.
When Renquist and his wife, Cida, were ready for a more settled life, he saw a listing for an Oregon State University Extension Service horticulture agent in Douglas County. He knew of the area from having visited his brother in Salem and from doing work as a crop forecaster in the wheat fields of northern Oregon.
He was hired for the position in 2000.
Now, after 21 years of helping large and small crop and orchard growers with visits to their properties, with written information from Oregon State University scientific research and with educational classes, the 71-year-old Renquist is retiring at the end of this month.
“I liked what I saw out here,” said Renquist of his initial thoughts about the county. “When I looked at the job description back then, this county didn’t have a very significant horticulture industry. It was diverse, but production was pretty small.”
That has changed and Renquist has helped by providing educational information. Since 2000, winegrape acreage in Douglas County has grown from 400 to 3,800. Filbert orchards expanded from 25 acres to almost 600. Blueberry acreage has increased from about 75 to 800. Renquist said there’s also been growth in nursery and greenhouse production, and the Master Gardener program has increased to a membership of about 250.
“My role has been to help out in the fields with information, but also in marketing the area,” Renquist said. “There’s been bumps in the growth along the way, but we’ve worked those out.”
Earl Jones, co-owner of Abacela Winery near Winston, said he appreciates the knowledge Renquist brought to the county.
“He has a world of experience and to bring that kind of perspective from those other countries to Douglas County is of great value,” Jones said. “Steve’s greatest value was one-on-one, standing in your vineyard, trying to figure out what was going on. That’s where he was extremely useful.”
Renquist was on the Umpqua Valley Winegrowers Association board for many years before recently resigning.
“Steve’s expertise was a huge asset to the wine-growing industry,” said Terry Brandborg, co-owner of Brandborg Vineyard and Winery in Elkton. “We really appreciate the extension program Oregon State University has here in Douglas County. Steve’s been a great asset not just to the grape industry, but to all agriculture.”
One study Renquist was involved with was the quality of wine grapes versus the tonnage. It was initially thought that the best quality was produced when the harvest was at about 2 tons per acre. Renquist said that several tests on different crop loads showed that the quality was the same for up to 4 tons per acre.
“Most of the growers appreciated that study,” Renquist said.
The horticulture agent also proved to be a valuable mentor to the county’s Master Gardener program and its members. He and the gardeners developed the Discovery Garden and the Victory Garden on county-owned ground at Riverforks Park. Renquist used the Discovery Garden and its different areas of focus as a classroom with subjects such as plant identification, soil testing and pruning. There are educational signs throughout the garden.
“Without a doubt, it’s the nicest Master Gardener developed garden in the state,” Renquist said. “People walking through can stop, look and read, and learn something.”
The Victory Garden focuses on growing vegetables. Those gardeners donated 9,000 pounds of produce to UCAN this year.
Julie Stanbery, president of the Douglas County Masters Gardeners, has known Renquist since he took the horticulture position.
“He’s done a wonderful job of working with the volunteers to make us the best we can be,” Stanbery said. “He’s done everything he can to keep us educated with any advanced information that is coming along. He’s helped us be educated in communicating with the community.
“The agent’s job is to keep us informed and up to date on regulations and information so we can pass it along to people who come to us for advice regarding their gardens and orchards,” she added. “The Discovery and Victory gardens are a showcase of Steve’s management skills.”
Renquist said there have been many developments in agricultural programs and equipment that run off technological advances. He explained it’s time to pass the county’s horticultural position to somebody younger.
“A guy like me, when I was in college, we didn’t even have a computer, we wrote it down on paper,” he said. “It’s time to turn this over to some young person who probably has some technology in their skills that I haven’t had.
“I’ve been able to be here during a time of nice growth in the agricultural industry and in the Master Gardener program,” he added. “I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it.”