The Speed of Life

Reuben Oliver Garnett | Agricultural Science | Beaverton, OR 

Organic Growers Club | Class of 2020

photo by Sean Simonson

A Practical Future

I chose my major after leaving Corvallis and the Environmental Science program in 2017, for reasons outside school that were precipitated by a broken ankle. When I returned, I did so to make a more specific positive impact on the environment with my career through a human system with arguably the farthest-reaching environmental effects to date. Agriculture is the most core relationship to the environment that humans have--it sustains lives. Given that, in the future, there are only more lives to come into this world, agriculture seemed to be a logical step toward environmental stewardship, specifically organic agriculture. Conventional agriculture is not going anywhere anytime soon, it provides more than enough food for the population (its distribution being beside the point). I was interested in food production where the environment is included as a cooperative factor rather than a subservient tool, where leached nitrate fertilizers that annihilate marine life at the Mississippi River's mouth are considered precious and used sparingly rather than in the manner they have been applied since World War II. In the future, my studies in organic agriculture will hopefully overlap the interests of conventional agriculture. Cover crops are seeing widespread use by large growers already, and concepts for erosion control and fertilizer pollution that organic agriculture emphasizes are being utilized by non-organic interests. So, as a student learning how to produce food in a manner that predates–and will outlast–our present economic systems, I hope to impact society's perception that agriculture is a destructive process through example while supporting the organic movement from the ground up. I want to be involved with organic agriculture in industry and at a scale that is unconventional, and is still seen as inferior to non-organic at the moment: large-scale grain crops for food and seed. Cover crop seed is the foundation of sustainable food production regardless of ideology, and without high-quality seed, it is nearly impossible to follow through in the act of, and with the ideals of, sustainable food.


Exciting Experience

For a long time, my field of study was limited to the courses I took and the people I met by taking them. Extracurricular clubs have always been a struggle for me to commit to, but I have been a part of the GeoSciences Club and intended to be part of a Summer term trip to New Zealand to explore the whirlpool-like geologic activity there–I broke my ankle shortly before departure, though, and missed it. The next year I applied for the Branch Extension Station (BES) undergraduate research program at the North Willamette Research and Extension Center (NWREC) and I got the position. I spent that summer working on field variety trials of sweet peppers, melons, and tomatoes for the Northern Organic Vegetable Improvement Collaborative (NOVIC), a nationwide research study for new cultivars that stretches from Oregon to New York. During that time, I wrote a preliminary results paper on the vegetable varieties for the BES program and presented at the 2019 CAS Undergraduate Research Showcase. The most valuable aspect was learning the format in which ag research takes place while being exposed to an environment generating data used by the public. I was apprehensive beforehand, but researchers are people, too, and extension is an inherently productive environment for research, education, and learning alongside people–not just researchers! I also participated in and helped facilitate the Summer Vegetable Variety and Cover Crop Field Day hosted by the Culinary Breeding Network. This was the exciting component, but showing up and working with beautiful soil (it really is up there), particularly interesting plants, incredible people (Heidi Noordijk, Nick Andrews, Clint Taylor, and Harrison), and coming away with fresh food all made for an enjoyable experience.

Family Influence

For the past two generations, both sides of my family have been involved with higher education at the university level and achieved degrees. It is a fact I realize puts me in a privileged position within society, along with other traits. However, none of my three elder siblings have completed their chosen degrees, so among the current generation produced by a marine biologist and a civil engineer/patent lawyer, I will be the first with a bachelors degree. There are two associate degrees among us, however, both being transfer degrees from Portland Community College (PCC) and are held by the two youngest siblings.


Feeling the Rush

I am active, and when I'm active, I gravitate toward adrenaline-inducing sports. I started riding skateboards around 8 years old, but I say "riding" because I am not a "skateboarder." I cannot confidently do tricks and can barely hold my own on skatepark ramps or pump-tracks, rather, I ride longboards that are fairly flat with large wheels down twisty roads with between seven and fifteen percent grades. With my weight, I can expect thirty to fifty-five miles per hour when I'm out riding. I snowboard as well, mostly all-mountain but am slowly acquiring what I need to get into the backcountry so I can ride mountains to their fullest extent! I also enjoy urban road and gravel cycling. Part of the challenge of cycling is the components that make up a bicycle, which have an astounding number of equivalencies and standards, each with their own history that fit together like a corporate jigsaw puzzle to form what we know as a bike. It also keeps my cardio fitness up to snuff, and it’s FUN!

Learning the Land

My career journey has been slow to start and the truly exciting opportunities are largely based on interpersonal relationships. My first paid job was selling products and byproducts of the timber and extractive resource industries at a place named Schlegel Barkdust (the owner’s wife was my high school career advisor). At sixteen, I operated front-end loaders retailing horticultural and landscaping raw materials like sandy loam fill dirt, bark dusts, composts, and various types of round and crushed rock. In combination with my conservation mindset, I wanted to help offset the damages these industries do to the world. After that job, I never worked near natural resources again until last year when I enrolled in BES. Simultaneously, our farm’s National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) agent recommended I work with Polk County Soil and Water Conservation District on riparian buffer contracts–something I’m continuing with my work at NWREC and at school this year.


Wealth of Experiences

The BES program run by Christina Walsh has been the sole provider of my College of Agricultural Sciences-related, hands-on experience and, within that, I have spent all my time in Extension (something I prefer and am grateful for). It has paid off in my eyes, too, since I was asked back to NWREC this winter to work on the Winter Variety trials (Radicchio, Purple Sprouting Broccoli, Cabbage, and Brussel Sprouts) by Heidi and Clint. My personal experience with cover crops and the short time I spent working with Nick hopefully indicates that there are more opportunities to come in large-scale organic field cropping using unique cover crops and extremely cool nutrient calculating tools. I volunteer with Polk Soil and Water Conservation District on evaluating Conservation Reserve Stewardship Program as well, which usually puts me on agricultural land while evaluating riparian buffer and stream health. I'm mostly getting experience talking with farmers and learning the workings of government contract evaluation, so not precisely AgSci but it's related to certain aspects like fertilizer use, soil science, hydrology, and botany/biology.


Digging Into Data

My research closely mirrored the NOVIC trials in all aspects and, since it was the first year of a three-year project, there were few conclusions to be drawn and only short-term data available. This was my first experience generating data in the field and forming results from it and, although it was not the best timing, I have been able to transfer applicable parts of that process to my family’s farm. We are a first-generation farm doing some barley experiments on about two acres for our own purposes. We are attempting to generate our own data on varieties specific to the characteristics of the property. The farm was in conventional tall fescue production for about thirty years and we are attempting an organic conversion on that field.


Shooting for the Moon

In five years, I hope to have earned another degree in crop and soil science and taken a larger role in operating my family’s farm. I would like to be working in a public agency like the NRCS, a soil and water conservation district, or university Extension. The USDA and Oregon Tilth would also be ideal organizations to work for. Agricultural Science is helping me reach these goals first by establishing my technical skills by quickly learning new processes then applying them effectively. That much is clear through the courses I take, but more often I feel that my time in Oregon State's Agricultural Sciences program has helped set my plans for the future into a relevant context–rather than aimlessly “shooting for the stars,” I’m learning the steps required for a lunar landing so I can land on the asteroid of my choice.

Confidence Booster

There has been one consistent challenge in my education: myself. I have everything in the world going for me, and what I’ve done to get out of my own way is make constant attempts at understanding. Understanding why I choose to do A over B, why am I performing one way in class X rather than class Y, etc. Another is that it took a long time for me to gain confidence that performance in other parts of life is equally important to my academics and career. This is my current challenge, as time commitments and the new digital format of professional existence all compete for my energy. I must be stable at home and in my own skin if progress is to be made.


Taking a Pause

A defining moment was my decision in 2018 to drop out of Oregon State in the first week back after spring term. I made the decision while in a fairly negative head space and, after speaking with faculty (Casey Menn and Larry Becker at the College of Earth, Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences) and personal contacts, I chose to have faith in their collective advice that “Only you know what your self needs.” The moment after dropping all my courses from MyOSU was I was simultaneously feeling downtrodden and empowered, yet only the feeling of empowerment has persisted–that period of feeling down in the dumps was very real and very intense though. It gave me my first taste of a complete pause, one where I lived on my own in Portland working various jobs full time through the rest of 2018 and into 2019, skating, and making friends in the local music scene while continuing my work at the family farm. It was a time of new perspectives that ultimately led me back to Oregon State–I now have one class left to finish my Bachelor of Science in Winter 2021.


Don't Be Afraid to Fail

I would tell incoming students that this is their game, this whole system depends on their hard work, and they should take charge from within. Given the time I have spent in higher education, I could have made very tangible, substantial differences in the world if I got more involved early. I am still not deeply involved in clubs, advocacy, or other organizations though I am on my way–one reason I intend on sticking around longer. However, the benefits of being uncomfortable (within reason) and stumbling through awkwardness will put you in a far more useful position: “Do not be afraid to fail. Be afraid not to try.” It is generic, yes. It uses a scare-tactic, yes. But, it is quite useful in exposing the inherent resistance to change most of us experience.