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Harry Carlson looks back at years of problem solving

by Jill Aho, Herald and News April 12, 2009

H&N photo by Jill Aho Harry Carlson is retiring as director of the University of California Intermountain Research and Extension Center after 25 years.

Harry Carlson is moving stuff out of his office as someone else is moving in.

Carlson, 60, has been the director of the University of California Intermountain Research and Extension Center in Tulelake for 25 of his 33-year career at the University of California.

During his time, he has helped oversee innovation and implementation of several agricultural improvements, and participated in research that affects how farmers in the Basin do their jobs. Although young for a retiree, Carlson said he seems to have less free time now than he did while working.

“I tell all my friends, ‘Farm advisers are like cars, they’re judged by the mileage, not the model year,’ ” he said.

The extension service works to facilitate a two-way information flow between producers and researchers. Carlson helped both introduce new technologies to farmers and direct research to solve problems in the field.

“Most of the real innovations have come in direct response to new problems and commodities,” Carlson said.

Solving problems

The extension office and the other eight like it have worked to solve pest- and disease-related problems, such as the Columbia root knot nematode, which threatened the potato industry.

The extension center also was instrumental in introducing producers to sugar beet cultivation, although Carlson said with the loss of sugar refineries in California, that commodity isn’t as profitable as it once was. Additionally, water issues, which plague Basin farmers, have been a focus of research at the extension.

“That’s been steady progress,” Carlson said. “Even as early as 1992, the university became rapidly engaged in the scientific debate over water use.”

Carlson recalled how the research at the extension office changed overnight to focus on developing scientific data about water use in agriculture. He hopes water use issues will be sufficiently resolved in the next 10 years.

“I think that’s an example of how quickly cooperative extensions can be responsive to new issues,” he said.

Carlson said right now much research is focused on developing new crop varieties that will keep Basin farmers competitive in the marketplace. The extension center is making strides in white rot in onions, he said, and he anticipates having a solution to the problem that decimates infected fields within five years.

“It’s the most serious onion disease in the world,” he said.

Looking to the future, Carlson said he believes biotechnology will play a larger part in development of new crop varieties. He also thinks that public education and scientific research into genetically-modified products will help bring about a better understanding of what these sort innovations will mean for the future of food production.

“Typically, technology and breakthroughs will be driven by the marketplace,” he said. “Currently, there is a movement by knowledgeable consumers that appreciate having locally grown foods.”

That could drive local producers to diversify to satisfy customer demand, he said.

Plans for the future

Carlson and his wife plan to continue living in the Tulelake area, and he has gotten tremendous satisfaction from working outdoors and seeing tangible results from his research.

“I moved to Tulelake because I believed it was the job in the University of California,” he said. “I still believe that today.”

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