An Extensive Route to Oregon

Extension Agent Has Found Her Place Supporting the Gorge and Local Farmers

By Rodger Nichols

Ashley Thompson, a horticulturist and tree fruit specialist, works with pear growers in Oregon and Washington. Photo courtesy of Oregon State University

Ashley Thompson is a woman of many interests. She took a winding path to The Dalles and her job as a horticultural extension agent.

Ashley grew up in Taylor, Pennsylvania, which is an anthracite coal mining area. Her family emigrated from the Cardiff area of Wales to work in the mines.

Ashley was more interested in the top layer of the ground. She studied soil science and microbiology at Susquehanna University, a small liberal arts university.

“My first research job was taking soil samples near mine fire events,” she says. “There’s a mine fire in Pennsylvania called the Centralia Mine Fire. It’s been burning for a very long time. We were studying how that underground mine fire—the temperatures and the sulfur—affect microbial communities in the soil and how it affects plant communities.”

Ashley also studied acid mine drainage—runoff that turns streams orange, something she says was a common sight in the area.

“I was going to be a soil scientist working on more traditional ecological-based problems,” she says. “When I decided to go to graduate school, I interviewed at the University of Maine with a plant pathologist there. During my interview, we went out in the field to look at blueberry diseases. There was one relatively new in the Maine lowbush blueberries. It was something that could get tracked around by people, sticking to their clothes.

“I was really interested in that problem, and I just enjoyed the time I spent with the farmers. So that’s really how I became an extension agent.”

Following her master’s degree in ecology and environmental science, Ashley went to Virginia Tech for her doctorate in horticulture.

“I actually did my Ph.D. in an experiment station,” she says. “I was in the community and immersed in working with farmers and in the field.”

That was followed by a postdoctoral 1-year position in the organic and sustainable horticulture program at the University of Nebraska.

“I think I was the largest tomato producer in Nebraska for a year,” she says.

“At least, it felt that way. I had about 2,000 plants.

“I didn’t love Nebraska. It was way too flat, and I was living in a city for the first time since I was 18. It was way too much for me.”

In April 2018, Ashley landed the job of Oregon State University tree fruit horticultural extension agent for Wasco and Hood River counties, a position she says she greatly enjoys.

Ashley poses with a few items from her extensive collection of giraffes. Photo by Rodger Nichols

More recently, Ashley was appointed by former Oregon Gov. Kate Brown to the Columbia River Gorge Commission. The commission works with the U.S. Forest Service to set policy for protecting nonfederal lands in the Gorge. It also serves as an appeals board for land-use decisions, supports counties in administering ordinances, and encourages economic development.

“It’s really nice to work on problems that are important to people and important to economic issues and ecological issues,” Ashley says. “And I also just really enjoy farmers.”

She also loves giraffes. Lots of giraffes.

“I just think they’re very interesting and elegant creatures,” Ashley says. “I like the way they move. I love their big gray, black tongues. I have thought they are super cool for most of my life.

“I have a collection of giraffes. 2 of my most prominent giraffes are in my car, so I drive around with two little stuffed animal giraffes.”

Though she didn’t plan to stay in Nebraska, one happy memory stands out.

“As an adult woman, I went to the Lincoln Children’s Zoo in Lincoln, Nebraska, and got to feed the giraffes,” she says. “There are four or five of them, and they’ll come up and take lettuce leaves out of your hand. It was $5 a bundle for leaves, and I was just having the best time. I think I spent like $25 buying lettuce for the giraffes.”

Ashley has a wedding in her future, and giraffes will play a part.

“I bought a bunch of giraffes, and I’m spray-painting them gold,” she says. “Those are going to be my table numbers.”

Ashley says one of the advantages of living in The Dalles is that she can get a quick giraffe fix by going across the river to Schreiner Farms, where giraffes live. But giraffes aren’t the only animals Ashley dotes on.

Originally, she and her partner, Chad, wanted dogs, but that wasn’t practical because of all the traveling the 2 do. In searching for a small pet with doglike qualities, they settled on rats.

“They have these great little personalities, really pretty fur colors, and they can be incredibly smart and very sweet,” Ashley says.

On a more serious note, Ashley is adamant about cancer education. She inherited a BRCA1 gene from her mother. People with particular genes are susceptible to several kinds of cancer.

“My mom was a 2-time breast cancer survivor before she died of glioblastoma multiforme,” Ashley says. “I am a BRCA1 previvor, which means I’ve had a double mastectomy and I’ve had some surgeries to remove my tubes so I won’t get ovarian cancer. Education about cancers relating to the BRCA1 gene is something that’s kind of near and dear to my heart.”

She urges people with a family history to get tested and treated so they can enjoy their interests—giraffes or otherwise.