EUGENE, Ore. – Nellie Oehler, who helped develop a statewide food preservation program and taught hundreds of Oregonians to safely store food, is preparing to hang up her apron after four decades of working for the Oregon State University Extension Service.
Extension's most well-known food preserver 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.
Oehler, 65, signed on as a 4-H agent with Extension in Linn County in 1965. In 1980, she 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 (pronounced a ler) said she has certified at least 500 graduates since the program's inception. 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," said Charlotte Riersgard, the staff chair for Extension in Lane County. “Nellie has probably saved many a family from illness, or worse.”
Riersgard added that OSU has been recruiting for a temporary replacement for Oehler's position, which would again become a permanent position if funding for Extension in Lane County becomes more certain. "Extension in Lane County will be greatly affected if the federal Secure Rural Schools legislation – timber money – does not get extended," she said.
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 consumers’ 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.
As retirement nears, Oehler is thinking about what she'll do next. She plans to pursue her passions: 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 1971 Westinghouse double oven, which she got as a wedding present.
"Even though I am retiring, I will always be an Extension supporter and volunteer," she said.
For information about Extension in Lane County, go to http://extension.oregonstate.edu/lane/food-preservation/volunteer