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Despite severe limitations, OSU's North Willamette Research and Extension Center has found a way forward

Retiring in the midst of a global pandemic certainly doesn't look the way Mike Bondi envisioned it.

Bondi, the research director at the OSU North Willamette Research and Extension Center in Aurora, officially retired on June 30, but continues to work half-time as the director of that facility.

"It's essentially the same part of my job I've had the last 10 years," said Bondi.

So, what's changed? Well, for starters, he no longer deals with issues and projects out of the Clackamas County Extension office in Oregon City. And, there's a pandemic that's continuing to make things interesting down on the farm.

PMG PHOTO: JOHN BAKER - Mike Bondi (left), the research director at the OSU North Willamette Research and Extension Center in Aurora, now works half-time at th facility after retiring in June.

"I'm just focused here now," said Bondi of his trimmed-down role. "This whole COVID-19 thing came up, and in my 42 years, I've never seen anything like this — no one has. Organizations like ours or private businesses, you name it, we have all been impacted in ways we couldn't imagine."

The NWREC has certainly felt the weight of the pandemic. On March 16, the Aurora facility was closed to the public. Six months and two weeks later, it's still closed to the public. But with the restrictions and precautions came opportunities — and some semblance of a new normal.

Bondi said that after some dark days early on, he and his staff have moved forward and created something out of what appeared to be nothing.

"We were allowed to continue critical functions as agriculture is considered an essential service within the state," explained Bondi. "That started out pretty small, though."

Faculty and staff could only come out to the farm via permission, and at set times for specific functions. The goal was to manage the density of people at the center at a given time. No one could be in offices, there could be no communal rooms and a tent was eventually set up outside for social distancing. People were eating lunch in their cars or in secluded locations at the farm.

PMG PHOTO: JOHN BAKER - The amount of people that could enter the research facility was initially very small, but that has grown some over the summer, though safety precautions are still very much in place and the facility is essentially closed to the public except via appointment.

"From the closure in mid-March to probably early May, those were some dark times," said Bondi. "There was so much unsettled and unknown. But since then, we are really rolling along. We have a job to do and the challenge was to be productive, focused on the mission and find creative new ways to serve the community. It's not perfect, it's not like the old days, but we found new ways to do things. We've gotten pretty good at Zoom meetings — and we're all a little sick of Zoom meetings, too."

And that's how Bondi, his staff and the 30 students who spent the summer working at the NWREC moved forward into the fall: doing things differently and safely.

"As the spring marched on and we could see that COVID-19 wasn't going away anytime soon, we gradually did increase the presence of people here by permission," said Bondi. "We also have contractors coming in to do work and we probably get three to six deliveries a day out here."

That all had to be worked out as things started to ramp up bit by bit. In mid-June, other people were allowed on the grounds via appointment, getting an hour to check out crops or other projects that were going on.

PMG PHOTO: JOHN BAKER - Events like the annual open house at the NWREC facility in Aurora had to be cancelled this summer.

"Usually, the farmers are out here looking at what we're doing, the research we have going on, so we were able to do that," said Bondi. "One of the things that was pretty cool was our faculty and staff have responded nicely. They still had important things to share, so they were doing Facebook live, Twitter live and others (platforms), even out in the field, to get their information out.

"There were restrictions, but it's manageable and it's what you have to do right now," he added. "We are trying to respond and meet the needs of our ag community and farmers."

At the last staff meeting Bondi presided over before the closure, he said he remembers telling the staff and faculty that they should be prepared for a shutdown and that they needed to look at their research and see what they could walk away from and what they could continue to do.

"Within two days of that meeting, we got the word from the university that we would be shutting down the following Monday," said Bondi. "March and early April were pretty scary times. Fortunately, the American spirit has always been a resilient one."


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