Retired Extension agent, turning 100, reflects on career

Note: Steve Besse died on Sept. 20, 2020, at the age of 100.

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Steve Besse, who is turning 100 on Dec. 26, isn’t ready to say that working for Extension keeps you young. But he isn’t closing the door on the possibility, either.

“Well, I’ve been in pretty good health, and I think one of the things in Extension is you try and help people eat and live in a healthy manner,” Besse said.

Besse spent one-quarter of his life, 25 years, working for Oregon State University’s College of Agriculture, and most of it in Extension.

Before that, his father, Ralph Besse, spent a little more than 30 years working as a farm management Extension specialist for OSU and as administrator of the university’s Agricultural Experiment Station.

Besse, who graduated from OSU with a degree in agriculture in the early 1940s, started at OSU in the late 1950s as a Malheur County Extension agent. While there, he worked extensively with onion and potato growers, at one point providing growers a substantial savings in their annual input costs.

He explains: “The potato growers had this flea beetle, which was a major problem, and they would spray every year for it, which was expensive. So, I went out and collected beetles with a net and sent them to a specialist in Medford who was an entomologist, and he wrote back and said, ‘These are not potato beetles. These are cabbage flea beetles, and they do not attack potatoes.’

“From that point on, we didn’t do any more spraying. It saved the potato growers thousands of dollars,” he said.

Next, Besse worked out of Eugene as a Lane County Extension agent, where he worked extensively with grass seed and specialty seed crops, such as beets. He finished his career as director of international agriculture for OSU, helping growers in Tunisia and other African countries improve their production practices.

Despite his pedigree, Besse didn’t start his career in Extension. After leaving the U.S. Navy, where he ferried hundreds of GIs to Omaha Beach on D-Day for the Allied forces, he went to work for a California seed company to avoid any conflict of interest that could arise from working under his father.

“I felt it would be better to get something else,” he said.

Besse, who spent 17 years with Ferry-Morse Seed Co., started as an office assistant but quickly moved onto the company’s international sales team, a promotion he earned through an insightful action.

“I happened to read in the San Francisco Chronicle that Japan had had a typhoon and it had wiped out their onion crop, and they were going to have to replant all of their onions,” he said. “I had developed a list of 21 different seed companies in Japan and I cabled all of them and got answers from 20 of them. They all needed seed and I put together in the next two weeks a 10,000-pound order of onion seed that shipped to Japan, and it was the biggest single shipment that Japan Airlines had had up until that time.

“So, the ambassador came down to the office and entertained me and the company and it made quite an impression and that started me off in international sales with the seed company,” Besse said.

Besse might never have left the company were it not for a decision by the company to move him to Europe.

“I came home to tell my parents goodbye for the next four or five years and went to a Christmas party and the director of Extension was there and he offered me a job as county agent in Ontario,” Besse said. “So, I resigned and went to work for OSU.”

Looking back, Besse sited his international work as some of his most rewarding.

“I made several trips to Tunisia to help develop their agriculture,” he said, “and those were very rewarding.”

Working with growers in Oregon also has been a highlight, he said. “I’ve very much enjoyed working with growers here in Oregon,” he said. “We did a lot of strictly one-on-one in those days, and it was very rewarding.”

Besse and his wife of 74 years, Dyna, live in Corvallis. They have three daughters, four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

This story originally appeared in GROWING, a publication of OSU Extension Service in Linn and Benton counties.

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