OSU Extension food preserver to retire

April 3, 2008
OSU Extension's Nellie Oehler (left) teaches students how to dehydrate food. Photo by Bob Rost.
OSU Extension's Nellie Oehler (left) teaches students how to dehydrate food. Photo by Bob Rost.

EUGENE, Ore. – Nellie Oehler was only in grade school when she told her mom she wanted to be a county Extension agent. Living on a dairy farm near Coos Bay, she knew all about Extension, having been involved with a 4-H livestock club. Her mom, however, dismissed Oehler's career goal as a child's passing fancy.

But the daughter of Dutch immigrants was determined. In 1965, her aspiration became reality when she signed on as a 4-H agent with the Oregon State University Extension Service in Linn County. Now, after four decades of helping Oregonians live and eat better, Extension's most well-known food preserver is finally hanging up her trademark black OSU apron. Oehler, 65, will retire from her part-time position as a Family and Community Development faculty member in Lane County on June 30 – a job she has held since 1989.

Her legacy, however, will live on in kitchens across the state. Oehler (pronounced ā ler) helped create Extension's statewide Master Food Preserver program, a 40-hour course in which students learn how to can, pickle, dry and freeze food and handle it safely.

Oehler said she has certified at least 500 graduates since the program's inception in 1980. Graduates are expected to spend an additional 40 hours sharing their new knowledge by, for example, answering consumers' calls to two food safety hotlines that Oehler coordinates for Lane County and the state. Last summer and fall in Lane County, 64 Master Food Preservers – also known as Family Food Education Volunteers – volunteered 5,986 hours by answering 4,776 hotline calls, presenting 37 workshops to 4,750 people and staffing 29 information booths throughout the county, Oehler said.

"Thanks to Nellie and the wonderful cadre of volunteers she has trained, Lane County and the state have access to timely, accurate and critical food safety information through the hotlines and hundreds of outreach educational events they sponsor. Nellie has probably saved many a family from illness or worse," said Charlotte Riersgard, the staff chair for Extension in Lane County. Riersgard added that because of the current uncertainty of county funding for Extension in Lane County, Oehler's position will be filled on a temporary basis until funding is more stable. A replacement, however, hasn't been selected yet.

Early in her career as a 4-H agent in Linn and Benton counties, Oehler recruited and trained club leaders, judged contests, coordinated events, directed a summer camp and oversaw fairs.

"Then I got married," she said, "and the kids came and I had to make a choice. So I became a stay-at-home mom. That lasted about an hour."

She soon became a part-time foods and nutrition specialist for Extension statewide, answering consumer's calls and helping connect county Extension agents with the resources they needed.

She also taught for Linn Benton Community College, where she showed students how to bake bread, make soups and use a microwave. "I think I taught every person in Corvallis to use a microwave," she said. "That's when they were just coming out."

In addition, Oehler co-wrote the scripts for a video series on food preservation that aired on public television across the state for various years as well as in other states.

For more than 10 years, Oehler also oversaw the Lane County portion of the Family Community Leadership program that Extension offered statewide. The program taught individuals how to speak in public, facilitate meetings, resolve conflicts, listen effectively and write mission statements. These individuals were then expected to volunteer to help community groups, like nonprofits, with these same issues. They also used their new skills for their own endeavors. "Some are now successful entrepreneurs," Oehler said, explaining that one of her volunteers facilitates groups launching charter schools and another is active on a board that established a successful transition home for released prisoners.

"After that, I got a brainchild to do a food pantry program. When you're driving to Eugene, you have a lot of time to think," Oehler said, referring to her commute from her 40-acre farm in Corvallis to the Extension office in Eugene.

So she began compiling recipes and adapting them to use ingredients that were available in food pantries that feed needy people in Lane County. Since 2004, she has assembled 11 recipe booklets, which Extension-trained volunteers have distributed at the pantries. As part of the program, the volunteers make dishes from the recipes and then hand out samples at the 24 sites. The purpose behind the program is to teach the food pantries' shoppers how to better utilize foods donated to the pantries – many of which are unfamiliar to them – in nutritious, simple ways.

Oehler has gotten where she is today partly because of her determination, that same strong will she had when she vowed to become an Extension agent. As a child growing up on a dairy farm, she had to plead with her father to let her milk the cows because he thought it was a man's job, she said. He relented when she was about 13. "I was my dad's best milker," she said matter-of-factly.

When it came time to go to college, her high school counselor advised her against it because she had difficulty remembering details and taking tests, she said. Oehler ignored the counselor and packed her bags for OSU. Wanting to graduate in four years before her money ran out, she took 17 credits her first term. Her college adviser told her she wouldn't make it through school with such a heavy load. Oehler went on to make the honor roll several times and get her degree in foods and nutrition in four years.

When her daughter was born in 1974 shortly before Oehler had to leave home to direct a 4-H summer camp, she didn't cancel her plans. She brought her two-week-old infant with her and let the camp's cooks babysit her in the kitchen.

Years later, when her doctor called her on her cell phone during the Benton County Fair and Rodeo to tell her she had breast cancer, she didn't flinch. She was in the middle of overseeing a sheep show and had 4-H kids to tend to. She put off having a mastectomy until after the state fair because surgery just didn't fit into her schedule. The 4-H kids needed her as their "dorm mom" in Salem and she needed to prepare her sheep for showing.

Besides being headstrong, Oehler said she has a bit of a "rebel" in her. "When I turned 40, I gave up dresses. When my daughter got married, I wore a pantsuit," she said. She was tired of having to buy queen-size pantyhose to fit her 6-foot-1-inch frame, only to have them droop around her legs.

But there's also a "homebody" inside her, she said. She doesn't like to shop or travel, and she avoids leaving the house unless necessary. "I love people, but I'm sort of a loner," she said. She's happiest tending flowers in her "Butchered Gardens," volunteering, taking care of her two grandsons, visiting with the elderly at the assisted living home across from her farm, tending to her 75 sheep, and baking bread in her kitchen. She buys flour in 50-pound sacks and said she has baked thousands of loaves in her white 1971 Westinghouse, self-cleaning double oven, which she got as a wedding present.

Oehler does loves to cook, a skill she says her mother, Alida Van Calcar, didn't possess. When Van Calcar, a city girl from Amsterdam, found herself married to a Dutch dairy farmer in New York, she suddenly had to learn her way around a kitchen. "She joked about how much food she buried in the yard because she didn't know how to cook," Oehler said. "She wanted to make sure I knew how to do that."

But Oehler isn't a gourmet. "I'm a simple cook. I'd rather have meat and potatoes and gravy," she said. Whatever she fixes, she aims to make it look attractive, even if it's just adding raisins to oatmeal. She has her mother to thank for that. "My mom had no sense of smell. She ate with her eyes," Oehler said, explaining that her mom would dress up food to make it more enticing.

As Oehler's retirement nears, she recalls the day she told her mother she wanted to be an Extension agent. "I look back and can say, 'I made the right choice,'" she said. "Even though I am retiring, I will always be an Extension supporter and volunteer."

For information about Extension in Lane County, go to http://extension.oregonstate.edu/lane. To learn about the Master Food Preserver Program in Lane County, go to http://extension.oregonstate.edu/lane/food-preservation/volunteer.

Author: Tiffany Woods
Source: Nellie Oehler