You're out with your friends on Friday night, and at some point someone begins scrawling on a paper napkin and talking a mile a minute. Over the din of the jukebox and the clink of beer mugs, the scrawls become a shape and the talk becomes a plan. You think, "What a great idea! If only somebody would fund it."
News flash: Somebody does. "That's what we do," says Dorothy Beaton, executive director of the Agricultural Research Foundation at OSU. "We give the unusual idea a chance. That's where we take our risks, and that's where we get our rewards."
The Agricultural Research Foundation is a corporate affiliate of Oregon State University. Since the mid-1980s, ARF's competitive grants program has funded many intriguing ideas, some of which have developed into full-blown research efforts. For example, OSU research on cancer-fighting chemicals in yew trees and hops got ARF funding back when those projects were not much more than scrawls on a cocktail napkin.
"They fund ideas," says Pat Dysart, of OSU's Crop and Soil Science department, who is using ARF funds to look into the weed-killing effects of western juniper. "Very few sources fund conceptual ideas." A good idea at the paper napkin stage has little chance of success in the hotly competitive research-grant market. The foundation's mission is to give researchers the chance to explore and develop their concepts, and get projects ready to compete in the national arena.
Several research projects featured over the years in this magazine got their initial boost from ARF funds. That includes the green roof project on our current cover and the ground-breaking work with native pollinators described in our article, "The Other Bees," in this issue. In fact, much of the cost of bringing you these stories in living color is funded by an ARF special grant.
Every year ARF's General Fund awards monies for new research projects aimed at advancing and improving agricultural technologies. For fiscal year 2007-2008, the foundation granted $372,235, initiating 33 new projects. Some of the upcoming wild ideas include testing flexible biofilms to protect apples from sunburn and developing heart-healthy chicken eggs.
So if you're a researcher with an unusual idea, hang onto those beer-stained napkins.
A "GREEN" WEED KILLER
Like a lot of intriguing ideas funded by the Agricultural Research Foundation, this one began with a quirky observation. For years, people had noticed that juniper trees seem to inhibit the growth of other vegetation around them.
Populations of western juniper have surged in recent years across the dry inland West. Although it is a native species, its proliferation is drying up streams and outcompeting native grasses. Working with weed scientist Carol Mallory-Smith, Pat Dysart wondered whether something in the plant's chemistry might be killing or retarding the growth of neighboring plants. If so, they thought, might it be possible to use its toxic power as a weed-killer?
Grants from ARF allowed Dysart and Mallory-Smith to test their idea in greenhouse experiments, where they found that juniper leaves do inhibit germination of troublesome rangeland weeds, including medusahead and cheatgrass. The researchers are now taking their experiments to the field to test various ways to apply the juniper—as dried leaves, juniper tea, or leaf-and-stem mulch—and evaluate how well each works to keep weeds from sprouting. Dysart and Mallory-Smith are working with Jason Smith, a range specialist on the Warm Springs Reservation, where their field plots are located. The OSU research dovetails with the Tribes' efforts to remove invasive juniper from their rangelands. "We really appreciate the collaboration of the Tribes," says Dysart. "They've furnished all our juniper, cut it and brought it over to us, and they've helped us with installing and monitoring our experiment."
It's too soon to tell whether juniper will be developed into a commercial herbicide, says Mallory-Smith. But their work could help land managers and farmers harness the weed-killing power of this aggressive tree. In the meantime, the researchers have gained an additional $70,000 in funding from the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service. "If it weren't for our initial support from ARF, the project would certainly not have been as successful," Dysart says.
IT PAYS TO KNOW YOUR NOODLES
The people of Asia love their noodles, and they eat a lot of them—fresh, boiled, dried, steamed, or instant. Some of Oregon’s wheat crop is sold for noodle making in the Asian market. Oregon will sell even more, believes Andrew Ross, once hard white wheats—perfect for noodles—are developed and widely planted here.
Ross, a cereal chemist with OSU’s Crop and Soil Science department, is an expert on flours used to make Asian noodles. He is working with OSU plant breeder Jim Peterson to develop hard white wheat that will thrive in West Coast climates. (Most of Oregon’s wheat is of the soft white class, used chiefly for cookies, cakes, and pastry flour.) Ross is using his ARF funding to develop tests of noodle doughs made from different varieties of wheat. His goal is to devise precise metrics for all the qualities noodle makers care about: springiness, elasticity, slipperiness, compressibility, consistency or “feel,” and a host of others. These qualities change from dough to dough because of differences in levels of gluten protein and starch in different varieties of wheat seeds.
Ross whips up his recipes in special recording mixers that measure how springy the dough is and how well it forms into a ball. He squashes balls of dough between two plexiglass cylinders to measure how readily it compresses into sheets and how long it takes to relax after kneading. He squeezes boiled noodles with machines that measure their firmness, springiness, and resilience, important qualities for the discerning noodle consumer.
In the days when most noodles were made by hand, dough makers relied on their experienced touch. “They knew when to add a bit more water, a bit more flour, or give them one more pass with the rolling pin,” says Ross. Now, consistency (in both senses of the word) is critical because the dough has to work reliably with industrial-scale noodle machines and deliver identical noodle quality time after time.
Ross’s noodle measurements connect to Peterson’s wheat-breeding process, selecting wheat cultivars that have the best noodle-making qualities. Ross is assembling all his metrics into an index of product quality, so that, as hard white wheat gains acreage here, growers can assure Asia that Oregon wheat makes great noodles.
YOU CAN TAKE THE BERRY OUT OF THE FARM BUT YOU CAN’T TAKE THE FARM OUT OF THE BERRY
Discriminating coffee drinkers are willing to pay top dollar for coffee grown in Kona, Hawaii. But don't trust the label. About ten times more coffee is sold as "Kona coffee" than is actually grown on the island, says Kim Anderson. So the likelihood that you're drinking real Kona coffee is about one in ten.
Anderson, a chemist in OSU's Environmental and Molecular Toxicology department, has developed a way to read a plant's chemical "fingerprint" to pinpoint where the plant was grown. Her work could stem the widespread mislabeling of high-value food like coffee, blueberries, strawberries, and even salmon. It could also potentially help authorities track the flow of illegal plant-based drugs.
Anderson started out profiling potatoes at the University of Idaho. Because Idaho potatoes enjoy a market premium, some packing houses were putting Idaho labels on potatoes that were grown in other places. She developed a method to chemically distinguish an Idaho potato from one grown in Maine or Peru. Her work helped the Idaho Potato Commission win a lawsuit against the fraudulent packers.
How does profiling work? Anderson analyzes a plant's tissues to detect the ratio of certain micronutrients to one another—copper, sodium, potassium, iron, zinc, and others—and also the ratio of certain isotopes of carbon and nitrogen. Because these elements are present in different quantities in soils in different places, they will appear in distinctive ratios in tissues of plants grown in those soils. Thus, strawberries grown in the Willamette Valley have a different chemical fingerprint from those grown in Chile. It's possible to make even finer distinctions, between fruit grown in adjacent counties or even adjacent fields.
Anderson is using her latest grant from the Agricultural Research Foundation to develop an isotope-based fingerprint for salmon, to determine whether it's wild or farmed. Because farmed salmon is much cheaper than wild, "you can imagine that someone might be willing to mislabel it."