The Oregon landscape is a quiltwork of crop fields and orchards, lush forests and high deserts, jagged mountain peaks and deep river valleys. Land that has been farmed, built upon, or protected by decisions that have not been made lightly. Those decisions require scientific study and discourse and have for decades been influenced by Oregon’s land-grant university.
By Ben Davis
By its research stations—now eleven across the state in different microclimatic growing regions. By its stakeholders, who rely on timely and critical scientific information to determine growing patterns, pest management strategies, and irrigation solutions. By its alumni, who set out after graduation to help grow the future and leave their legacy.
The story of that growth is written across the landscape, and across the faces of College of Agricultural Sciences graduates that span decades. Graduates like Verl Holden, a 90-year-old living legend of the Oregon nursery industry, who helped create one of the most unique and beautiful manmade landmarks in the state—the Oregon Garden. Graduates like Kim and Carl Casale, who have stitched together land parcels in the Willamette Valley and planted miles of thriving blueberry rows. Or Michelle Armstrong, a 2004 graduate with a B.S. in Animal Science who is now a sales agronomist helping protect thousands of acres of crops by advising growers about pest management. Or Dr. Mohammad Koohmaraie, who received his PhD from the College and revolutionized the beef industry. Still others, like David Gremmels, became a part of OSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences community through professional experience, collaborating with researchers and students to advance the future of the dairy industry. The list goes on.
Agricultural Sciences at Oregon State University is more than a college. It is a community. A community made up of generations upon generations of students, graduates, faculty and staff, industry and stakeholders of all backgrounds, all bound by the common goal to make tomorrow better—for everyone.
The Impact of Agriculture
Agriculture is one of the most recognized industries in the state. It is the foundation of modern society and our closest relationship with the environment. With a growing population and a changing climate, striking a balance between conservation and food production is perhaps the most critical challenge we face as a society. This community has a tremendous impact on Oregon and beyond.
Every year at the annual Dean’s Dinner in October, the College honors alumni and community members at various stages of their careers with awards for their lasting contributions to their fields and to OSU. This was the first dinner hosted by the newest dean, Dr. Staci Simonich—the first woman to lead the College of Agricultural Sciences at OSU. The following award winners are a glimpse of our vibrant and thriving community of alumni and partners who have made a lasting impact on the agricultural industries and communities that make up the state.
Ushering in a New Era of Ag
Michelle Armstrong: Alumni Luminary Award
Michelle Armstrong is part of a shifting demographic in agriculture.
“I started when there weren’t many women in agriculture. Now there are a lot more women, which is fantastic. We’re seeing a lot more diversity in general in ag,” she said.
Armstrong graduated with a B.S. in Animal Science in 2004, but quickly pivoted to a career in crop science and stepped into a role as a sales agronomist for Wilbur-Ellis. In this role, she has seen an explosion of technology in agriculture. “Science and technology is a big part of what we do. We run a program that allows us to run scouting points in every field, and send growers a report with photos via computer that details their current level of pest pressure and how best to treat it,” she said. “When I first started, you could barely send a text message to a grower.”
Armstrong credits OSU with helping the ag industry adopt new technologies. “The land-grant university system has been instrumental. It allows researchers to pool funding and explore new technologies in ways that aren’t possible within industry.”
For the past 18 years she has remained deeply connected to OSU and helped growers protect their crops from pests with science-based decision making. She works closely with researchers and helps locate research plots to address specific pest issues. “You never know when you walk into the environs of ag what you’re going to find,” she said. “You can see a pest one time in twenty years. There’s a lot of excitement in ag, because it’s an opportunity to continuously learn.”
Armstrong is the current chair of the Oregon Hazelnut Commission and serves on the North Willamette Research and Extension Center advisory board, as well as several other advisory boards where she helps ensure that Oregon agriculture continues to thrive.
Building a Blueberry Legacy
Kim and Carl Casale: Alumni Leader Award
Kim and Carl Casale met their freshman year at OSU.
“We were set up on a blind date by Carl’s sister,” Kim said. They later graduated together in 1983 with degrees in Agricultural Economics and began their respective careers—Kim in the pharmaceutical industry and Carl in farm chemical manufacturing. Since graduating, they have both made significant contributions to Oregon State, as well as the many agricultural economies and communities of the state.
Kim spent 25 years in the pharmaceutical industry, climbing the ranks to area director, and Carl progressed from sales to marketing and ultimately became Chief Financial Officer of a large agrochemical company. He now serves as the lead agricultural partner at Ospraie Ag Sciences, where he works in venture capital investing in early-stage ag technologies, and Kim is the managing partner of Casale Ag, LLC.
In 1998, in the midst of building careers and a family, they returned to their agricultural roots and bought farmland in the Willamette Valley, where they began growing blueberries. They purchased several more parcels of farmland over time, including Carl’s family farm, and reconnected land that had been disjointed for decades.
Although they live in Minnesota and manage their farm remotely (returning seasonally for harvest) they have become increasingly involved with their alma mater over the past two decades. Carl was a trustee of the OSU Foundation from 2006 – 2012, and Kim served on the steering committee for the OSU fundraising initiative. They are both lifetime members of the OSU Alumni Association.
In 2011, they provided an initial gift to start the Beaver Classic program, recognizing the importance of investing in student success to ensure a future of innovation in Oregon’s densely diverse agricultural economy. The Beaver Classic brand enables students to package and sell agricultural products made on campus. It started with cheeses, but has recently expanded to include fruit and veggies, honey and beef jerky, with an assortment of other agricultural products on the horizon. It is a small part of a big legacy that is helping to advance the future of agriculture for generations to come.
Making Meat Safe Again
Dr. Mohammad Koohmaraie: Alumni Legacy Award
You may not remember a time when meat was unsafe, but in January 1993 the national news was frantic over the U.S. meat crisis. Hundreds of people became seriously ill, and several children died from contaminated hamburgers in the meat supply. The CDC soon identified that a pathogen called E.coli 0157:H7 was responsible.
“The response to that was a 9/11 for the beef industry,” said Dr. Mohammad Koohmaraie.
The U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Mike Espy, flew from Washington, D.C. to the outbreak epicenter in Seattle to meet with grieving families. Following that meeting, he immediately flew to the U.S. Animal Meat Research Center in Clay Center, Nebraska to find College of Agricultural Sciences alum Dr. Mohammad Koohmariae stationed there as a USDA scientist. Espy redirected all research efforts toward the meat crisis and tasked Dr. Koohmaraie to build a team.
“We worked long days—eighteen hours sometimes because we were under such time pressure. I told my team ‘If saving little kids’ lives doesn’t excite you to come to work, then you’re in the wrong business.’ Because that’s what we were doing. And we did a lot of groundbreaking work during that time.”
Koohmaraie and his team discovered that E.coli 0157:H7 was entering the meat supply through cattle hides, and developed systems of sanitary dressing practices to control the pathogen. These practices became the standard for meat safety in the U.S. and are still used today in many countries around the world—any country that exports beef to the United States.
“We came up with a lot of ways to control the pathogen,” Koohmariae said. “It’s always there lurking, but it’s not a problem because industry knows how to control it.”
In addition to food safety, Dr. Koohmaraie was also a pioneer of automation in the USDA beef grading system. Every large beef packer in the U.S. today now uses instruments he developed to apply USDA meat grading standards to carcasses and determine their market value. He also developed an online tenderness classification system to further streamline the process, and now works as the President of the Meat Division at IEH laboratories.
Peek out an airplane window over eastern Oregon and you will see an ocean of sagebrush scrubland, often termed “cattle country.” That land is grazed by beef cattle which ultimately arrives in supermarkets as meat that is safe and healthy for human consumption—largely in thanks to the extraordinary efforts of scientists like Dr. Mohammad Koohmaraie.
Crafting the World’s Finest Handmade Cheese
David Gremmels: Hall of Fame Award
David Gremmels’ career journey was never a straight path. After working in various roles in food and retail, he made plans to open a restaurant in Ashland, OR. One day he went to the Rogue Creamery to explore cheeses for his menu. While talking to the then-owner of Rogue, Gremmels was presented with another option—instead of buying the cheese, buy the business.
“Two weeks later I did. That’s how I came to own Rogue Creamery, over twenty years ago.”
The past two decades have been an adventure for Gremmels. “An adventure driven by a mission,” he said. “We are not only dedicated to sustainability, service, and the art of creating the world’s finest handmade cheese, but also to inspiring and engaging others to be socially, economically, and environmentally responsible.”
After buying the creamery, Gremmels reached out to the Food Science and Technology department at OSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences. “What I understood instantly was the connection of cheese and science,” he remembered. “Rogue had been operating on the art of cheesemaking for nearly seven decades, and it was time to bring science into the picture.”
The science paid off in a big way.
In 2019, Rogue River Blue was crowned the World’s Best Cheese in Bergamo, Italy. They were onstage competing against 3,800 cheeses from 42 countries, and took home the night’s highest honor. The award shook the cheese world.
“That award, like no other, resonated interest, excitement, and intrigue. It not only put Rogue Creamery in the history books, but also highlighted the American artisan and farmstead cheese movement,” Gremmels said. “But what I’m really proud of is our close-working relationship with OSU’s Food Science and Technology department. It has helped us achieve the world-acclaim that we have.”
“OSU plays a critical role, not only in supporting entrepreneurs through their pilot plant, but also supporting companies who create food and beverages with their graduates—helping Oregon to continue to lead in innovative, healthy, delicious, and pure food, aligned with the brand that we love: Oregon.”
Rogue Creamery is a also certified B-Corp and is helping to forge Oregon ahead as a leader in sustainable food production.
Sprucing Up Oregon
Verl Holden: Hall of Fame Award
Verl Holden is a legend in Oregon agriculture. At 90 years young, he still spends his time walking the gardens and greenhouses where he made his life and livelihood. Holden graduated in 1953 with a degree in Floriculture and soon after discovered he had a gift for grafting (joining two plants so they continue to grow together as one).
“I can sharpen a grafting knife sharper than a surgeon’s scalpel,” Holden said. “And at the time, nobody was having any luck grafting blue spruce trees. I read up on it and soon I was grafting 700 per day, working ten hours straight. Somewhere around 20,000 blue spruce grafts a year at our nursery. They were rare, and they sold for lots of money,” he said with a grin. Holden would later adopt new techniques such as “hot callus” grafting and promote them widely to help grow the industry.
When the housing market crashed in 2008, nursery sales came to a standstill. Holden converted all his nursery grounds to hazelnut orchards. “That made me a hazelnut farmer,” he said with a slight laugh. Then his tone shifted, and he imparted wisdom in the simple, direct way that can only be formed from decades of experience.
“The world needs food. Food comes from agriculture. Good agriculture comes from good experimenting,” he said. “And that is where Oregon State really does shine—in agricultural research. And with eleven different research stations scattered around Oregon…that’s a big deal. A big deal.”
“I’m really so pleased to see Dr. Staci Simonich as dean of the College. It’s a big job, and I think she’s really up to it. Hats off,” he said, lifting his ball cap from his head.
Holden’s success as a nurseryman and grower is on display in Silverton, OR. “I’d have to say my most proud thing is the Oregon Garden. Hands down, number one,” he said. “My role at the Garden was getting it started in the first place.”
The Oregon Garden is a stunning 80-acre botanical garden showcasing the beauty of the Willamette Valley and the Pacific Northwest. Holden joined the board of directors for the Oregon Association of Nurseries in 1958, which donated all of the plants and trees for the Oregon Garden. He helped design the conifer garden—its layout, berms, pathways, water system, soils, and plant selection.
“This garden is my monument…to living,” he said.