Pandemic leads to unprecedented burst of questions to Ask an Expert tool

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, questions have been pouring in to Ask an Expert, an online question-and-answer tool from Oregon State University’s Extension Service.

Questions have ballooned to 6,625 in the first half of 2020, more than all of the questions answered in 2019. About 250 experts, both faculty and volunteers, have stepped up admirably, according to Sandy Reichhuber, Extension’s Ask an Expert-co-coordinator.

“If we continue to grow at this rate, there won’t be any questions left unanswered and all Oregonians will be experts in gardening, food preservation, forestry, water quality and more,” Reichhuber said.

She’s kidding, but not by much. With more than 100 questions pouring in in a day, experts are stretched thin, especially responding in the required 48 hours. Although most questions have to do with gardening, there is a wide range of subjects, from food preservation to farming to exercise and nutrition

“In the last fiscal year, forestry experts answered 346 questions, food preservation received 200,” Reichhuber said. “We aren’t just about gardening. We have experts in so many fields that the general public doesn’t even think about.”

Since its debut in 2011, more than 13,200 people have written to Ask an Expert. Each week, Reichhuber chooses one question out of the many that come in to feature as Question of the Week on the OSU Extension website.

Questions can be about serious topics such as food safety and poisonous plants; others are amusing, like the one in 2019 in Columbia County about which way to turn a weed when pulling it. Chip Bubl, OSU Extension horticulturist in Columbia County, answered it with grace and won Extension’s annual Ask an Expert Question of the Year award.

Other Ask an Expert faculty winners include Ross Penhallegon (horticulture), Jeanne Brandt (food safety and preservation), Pami Monnette (horticulture), Amy Jo Detweiler (horticulture), Stuart Reitz (agriculture), Nicole Strong (forestry), Weston Miller (horticulture), Linda McMahan (horticulture), Toni Stephan (horticulture), Bill Buhrig (agriculture), Dana Sanchez (wildlife), Neil Bell (horticulture), Carolyn Breece (entomology), Andony Melathopoulos (bee specialist) and Jack DeAngelis (entomology).

Ask an Expert helps spot trends that Extension can respond to by increasing efforts to provide the public with research-based facts rather than the hit-or-miss information on the internet, Reichhuber said. For instance, concerned people have written in wondering why their large conifers are dying, a phenomenon brought on by increasing drought events in Oregon. Extension dealt with the emerging trend with a press release and Question of the Week.

“One thing I have heard is that the knowledge goes both ways,” Reichhuber said. “Master gardeners not only contribute to answers but follow certain questions to get more knowledge in areas they feel weak in. Everyone is learning, a win/win for all."

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