Where would Oregon agriculture be without the North Willamette Research and Extension Center? An interesting question.
Would we lead the rest of the country in caneberry production? Would Oregon have earned the title "The Nursery State?" It's debatable. And Oregon's highly touted wine industry probably should drink a toast in honor of the Oregon State University facility (sometimes called the NWREC, for short).
What's more, the vegetable research conducted at the center through the years has been of immense aid to Oregon's food processing industry. Even commercial holly growers have enjoyed much merrier holidays thanks to studies at the center.
The center lies just a few miles east of Interstate 5 south of Portland, near Aurora. Located on 160 acres once occupied by two dairy farms, the NWREC, which is often referred to as "the station," is one of the most agriculturally diversified tracts of land on the West Coast.
Where milk-swollen Holsteins once peacefully grazed now grow pampered plots of everything from kiwifruit to hazelnuts, corn and beans to ornamental shrubs. The grounds are also the site of experimental work by OSU in the field of precision agriculture, which uses satellites to help growers manage their crops (see related article, page 26).
At any one time, said station superintendent Ron Mobley, there are more than 100 projects in the works at NWREC, many involving studies of crops growing outside the center.
The North Willamette center is one of 10 OSU Agricultural Experiment Station branch facilities in the state. Like several others, it does more than research. Several OSU extension agents are based at North Willamette. They act as conduits between science and industry. So close is this interaction that it's sometimes easy to confuse the agents with the researchers. Extension personnel at the NWREC operate on a regional basis and cover at least six counties each.
As for its area of responsibility, NWREC primarily serves the nursery, berry, wine grape and vegetable industries from Portland to the Santiam River, and the Coast Range to the Cascades. The largest of the OSU experiment station's branch facilities, it employs about 25 people.
The NWREC is strategically located-in the center of the state's production and processing region, said Kelvin Koong, associate dean of OSU's College of Agricultural Sciences.
According to Mobley, about 40 percent of the state's annual $3 billion farm income is produced within a 50-mile radius of the NWREC. Most of the state's food processors and nurseries are located in the area. About 30 percent of its financial support comes from industry dollars, proof that it plays a valuable role in that sector.
Innovation is one of the facility's major crops. Examples:
Ornamental nursery researcher Sven Svenson is involved in developing retractable-roof greenhouses, which have been shown to help prepare plants for the great, and often unfriendly, outdoors. Plants grown in traditional solid-roof greenhouses not only suffer from high humidity, he said, they also need exposure to normal outdoor stresses such as ultraviolet light and wind before being sold and moved outdoors.
This project is being funded by a grant from the Mt. Hood Economic Alliance, industry donations, plus foundation and center operating dollars.
Svenson and extension nursery agents Hannah Mathers, Robin Rosetta and Rich Regan meet with people who work in the nursery industry regularly to bring them up to date on NWREC activities.
Svenson, who focuses mostly on plant health management, also is involved with several other projects. One particularly pesky pest that Svenson is out to eradicate is liverwort, a soil-hugging, moss-type weed that grows rather easily on the surface of nursery container stock propagated in the Pacific Northwest. "It steals the fertilizer and makes it hard to water," said Svenson.
He's been able to show nursery owners that there are certain things they do in managing their plants that encourage the weed's growth. "They can make minor shifts in the way they irrigate or in the growing medium or fertilizer they use and actually knock out 50 percent of the problem right away," he said.
Another project involves the use of a byproduct from one of Oregon's newest crops-meadowfoam-as a natural source for weed, insect and disease control. "It's unique because it's an Oregon crop helping another Oregon crop," Svenson said.
Svenson's predecessor, Robert Ticknor, a nursery researcher who joined NWREC shortly after it opened in 1952, is credited with numerous accomplishments in the nursery field. His extensive research in weed control has saved Oregon nurserymen countless dollars, making them more competitive in the national marketplace. One of the showcases on the grounds is an instructional garden that features hundreds of shrubs and trees planted by Ticknor, who is retired but continues to work at the station.
Bernadine Strik, an OSU Extension Service berry crops specialist and a horticultural scientist with the OSU Agricultural Experiment Station, is the only NWREC researcher who is based on the OSU campus in Corvallis. But Strik also maintains an office at the NWREC. When on the OSU campus, she teaches classes and does research and extension work.
One project near and dear to Strik is looking for ways to increase yields in berry fields. Because of Oregon's higher-than-average minimum wage and a growing unavailability of qualified labor, a lot of attention has been given to mechanical picking devices.
Though they greatly reduce the need for field workers, machine harvesters do pose one significant problem: They tend to reduce yields. To improve machine harvest efficiency, Strik is experimenting with such measures as trellising, aggressive pruning and higher density plantings in blueberries and caneberries.
She is also interested in improving the cold hardiness of commercial berry varieties through cultural (farming) practices, and she works closely with a U.S. Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service berry breeding program on the OSU campus.
Yet another of Strik's responsibilities as Oregon's statewide berry specialist is to plant and evaluate promising new berry hybrids coming out of the USDA-Agricultural Research Service program.
Strik works primarily with strawberries, caneberries, blueberries, cranberries and kiwifruit. Recently, she's become enthusiastic about a new crop that is showing promise in Oregon: hardy, or fuzzless, kiwi. Oregon is the world's largest grower of the fruit.
Working closely with Strik at NWREC are extension agents Ed Hellman, Diane Kaufman and Robin Rosetta. Hellman, along with others, put together the popular Northwest Berry & Grape Information Net Web site. The site has expanded recently to feature regular updates from his colleagues in Washington and Idaho.
Hellman said the Web site, which was launched in 1996, is a valuable tool for keeping in touch with the hundreds of wine grape and berry growers in the area.
Vegetable researcher Delbert Hemphill spends a good part of his time studying how crops take up nitrogen and how to better control the leaching of that valuable, but potentially hazardous, nutrient into ground and surface water.
With better management of the nitrogen that remains after harvest, said Hemphill, growers not only help the environment but boost their bottom line due to the lower cost of fertilizer inputs the following year.
In one part of his research, he and associates trap irrigation and rain water percolating beneath experimental plots and pump it through tubes to huge flasks. They analyze the collected water.
One product that Hemphill is looking at to improve vegetable yields is plastic. Using it as a protective mulch or ground cover, he has been able to reduce insect damage in tomatoes, sweet corn, melons, cucumbers and squash.
Although the project has been discontinued, Hemphill's study to determine the feasibility of introducing new crops to the Willamette Valley generated several successes. Some of the new vegetables now growing in the valley due to his work include over-wintering spinach, cauliflower and cabbage, as well as a variety of onions capable of growing in heavy-mineral soils.
Hemphill works closely with extension agent Bob McReynolds in keeping growers apprised of his activities.
Just about all commercial crops are waging a never-ending battle against insects. Robin Rosetta spends a good part of her time identifying insects and telling growers how to best handle them. She receives some pretty weird things in the mail, like parts of insects that need to be identified.
Like those at other research facilities, personnel stationed at the NWREC are immersed in several projects at once and often find it difficult to free themselves to conduct tours, said Mobley. This doesn't mean that the station does not want to interface with the public. The NWREC takes great pride in "showing its stuff," he said.
What kind of role will the NWREC play in Oregon's future, as Willamette Valley farmers and the nursery industry try to stay competitive while operating in the pressure cooker of urban sprawl? A challenging one, no doubt, but that's what the staff of the NWREC thrives on.