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Ray Pestle

09/18/06 12:00AM By Ron Krupp
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(HOST) Vermont farmers lost a good friend and advisor recently. Commentator Ron Krupp has this remembrance.

(KRUPP) Ray Pestle was Windham County's agricultural extension agent for thirty-one years, and continued as a farm consultant until he passed away early this month at the age of eighty-five. When Ray started working with local farmers, dairy farming and apple growing were still strong in Windham County. Organic farming was not in vogue in those days. Large amounts of chemicals were being used in apple orchards.

I first met Ray one hot summer day in 1969, when he came up to visit High Mowing Farm in Putney, an organic beef, apple and vegetable operation, a rarity in the late 1960s. I was working at Hill & Dale along side my good buddy, Robert King, apprenticing under Erling Anderson, a biodynamic farmer from Sweden. All three of us had been squashing potato bugs close to the farm pond and had gone skinny dipping, due to the heat and remnants of the larvae. While we were in the pond, Ray came up in his classic greens and asked to speak to Erling, who was a rather proper person. I remember how hard we had to prod Erling to get out of the water to talk to Ray, who got quite a chuckle out of the whole affair.

From 1945 to the present, Ray traveled the back roads of the county meeting with farmers in their fields and sharing what he learned with anyone he happened to meet. He was a knowledgeable servant of farmers both small and large. While farming changed through the years, Ray kept ahead of the trends and new methods, getting dirty and asking questions and learning everywhere he went.

"The reason our sweet corn had no worms is Ray," says Jack Manix, a vegetable grower from Dummerston who farms close to the Connecticut River. Ray helped him and his family at the Walker Farm for some thirty years until a few months before he died. Manix says, "He taught me and my wife and kids. We have the education he left and it just keeps getting passed down."

Vern Grubinger was hired in 1990 as the University of Vermont vegetable and berry specialist. He's doing much of what Ray did, but on a statewide basis. When they met, Ray offered to drive Grubinger around the county meeting farmers.

Grubinger says Ray wanted to learn about new methods such as integrated pest management where garden pests are monitored so that less pesticide use is necessary. He says, "Ray wasn't trapped into any dogma about how people should farm. When new ideas came along, he was right there. He embraced what people were interested in. His knowledge was deep, but he was always practical. He had a perspective you only get from a life lived serving agriculture. There are not many people like him. We lost an icon."

Ron Krupp is a gardener and author who lives near Lake Champlain on Shelburne Bay.

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