A platter of sweet, buttered corn steaming like a Cascades lake when the sun hits it on a summer morning. Plump, juicy berries. Hot pizza. Cold milk. Red roses. Green lawns. This is a story about food and fiber, and Oregon farmers, researchers and extension agents trying to find better ways to grow them.
What's the big deal about that, you may wonder. Isn't that what farmers and researchers always try to do? This is different, some contend. This is linked to a relatively new term, one that may have been circling in certain recesses of our national psyche for decades but entered the national lexicon in the 1980s and has risen in profile ever since. It is not business as usual and not simply the trendy "next big thing," proponents contend.
The term is sustainable agriculture.
There has been, and continues to be, lively debate about what some have called the "sustainable agriculture movement," ranging from what the term means to whether the mindset, if you will, will prove to be good or bad for society (for more on this, see the sidebar on page 34). OSU's College of Agricultural Sciences has even painstakingly developed its own definition of the term: "Sustainable agriculture is a product of management strategies that provide society with the long- and short-term means to insure an adequate supply of quality food and fiber, enhance economic viability, improve environmental quality and conserve the natural resource base," says Dean Thayne Dutson.
Despite the continuing debate, a growing number of scientists and extension agents across Oregon are teaming with farmers, ranchers and others to search for ways to improve production of the food and fiber most of us enjoy every day in efforts that seem to fit, literally or philosophically, with the sustainable agriculture approach. Some have, or have had, funding from a U.S. Department of Agriculture Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program. Others haven't. Let's look at a few examples.
"These farmers have lots of creativity and engineering knowledge and my feeling is that they're going to figure out how to make a better machine and make this work," says John Luna, an OSU horticulture researcher.
Luna is talking about a small group in the Willamette Valley, representing seven farms from Corvallis in the south to Mt. Angel in the north, who grow vegetables such as sweet corn, snap beans, broccoli and squash, along with other crops. The farmers, who have formed an organization they call the Willamette Valley Vegetable Growers Association, and Luna are experimenting with what they call "strip-till."
Instead of plowing all of a field to prepare seed beds for their crops, these farmers use a tractor to pull a device, one they're trying to improve upon because it's heavy and slow, through some of their fields. The device breaks up eight-inch-wide rows of soil.
These eight-inch seed beds are flanked by ground covered with dead plants, the remains of a "cover crop" such as wheat or a legume (like clover) planted throughout the fields after the previous harvest. The cover crops grow until just before strip-tilling for the next vegetable crop starts, when the cover crops are killed with a herbicide.
The potential benefits of this system include:
"The usual practice-what we call conventional tillage-is to use various tools to bury all weeds and crop residues with six to 10 passes through a field," explains Luna.
"We figure this (strip-till) is a one-pass operation," says Carl Hendricks, a second-generation farmer who's experimented on his farm between Stayton and Scio the last two years.
"We're trying to make sweet corn (production) profitable again for the Willamette Valley. It's been gradually deteriorating the last 10 years or so," adds Hendricks, who's been a member of the Oregon Vegetable Commission for nine years. "Also, there's a concern about the environment. Anything we can do to lower inputs should be good for the groundwater."
"We've worked with John [Luna] the last three years," adds Mark Dickman, who operates Dickman Farms east of Mt. Angel with his brother Mike. "I think we look at it as an investment in the future. Looking for ways to do things better. Minimum tillage has never really been adapted to Oregon, but it's been used in the Midwest for 25 years.
"Cover crops are 50 years old," adds Dickman. "But it's an idea that's coming back and it fits with strip-till. We don't see instant gratification. The first year we tried it [strip-till] our yield was down. The second year it was way up, but we think that was an aberration. The third year it was about the same [as with conventional tillage]."
"Increasing the economic viability of farming is a central focus of sustainable agriculture," notes Luna. "In nine on-farm trials in the Willamette Valley during the last two years, the strip-till system for sweet corn increased net profit by about $50 per acre. With the introduction of a new strip-till machine in 1999, which will operate much faster using smaller tractors than the old machine, we expect to see the economic advantage exceed $100 an acre compared to conventional tillage."
Richard Dick, an OSU soil scientist, is doing on-farm research with three graduate students and several other collaborators, including some of the same farmers who work with Luna.
"Basically we're looking at the long-term impact of farming practices on soils with in-depth studies of soil biology," says Dick. Six farmers "donate" fields and split them in half.
On one half they use conventional tillage. Crops grow in the summer, there's some tillage in the fall and the land sits bare in the winter. That, Dick points out, can encourage erosion and leaching of chemicals into groundwater. On the other half of their fields, the farmers use self-designed reduced tillage systems in combination with winter cover crops.
"The non-traditional systems should improve soil structure and biology because of less disturbance, cover crop root activity and residue incorporation in the spring," says Dick. "Cover crops capture residual fertilizers in the fall to maintain groundwater quality and add organic matter that provides 'glue' for soils to create more air spaces and improve water penetration and storage.
"Farmers have told us they may be able to irrigate less in the summer after using cover crops," adds Dick, "and they use less fuel because there's less compaction and they can use a higher gear for tillage operations."
But confirming cause and effect with these kinds of practices can take decades. So Dick and his collaborators have set out to find early indicators of changes in soil quality so farmers can determine within a year or two whether a management practice is improving a soil, or to identify soil problems that are causing poor crop growth. Techniques they are experimenting with include:
"Of course all these factors depend on the type of soil," Dick says. "The big challenge will be to calibrate these methods so they make sense on various soil types."
"The reason I'm willing and eager to participate in this," says Peter Kenagy, who grows vegetables on Kenagy Family Farms near Albany, "is that there's a world of things we don't know about the ramifications of various management regimes. I see real differences in my side-by-side comparisons-on the no-till side, some pluses and some questions about the best way to manage that land.
"To me it's a critically important area of research because pretty much every farmer in the Willamette Valley does tillage. That's what we know and that's how we're equipped. But when I look at my no-till side it becomes obvious how destructive tillage is. That's not to say there's no place for tillage. But it brings up a lot of questions."
Growing grapes in a more sustainable way is the overall goal of Oregon growers who are using a system called "Integrated Production," or IP for short.
"It [the approach] saves growers money, increases quality and is environmentally responsible," contends Al MacDonald, owner of Seven Springs Vineyards near Salem, noting that a new marketing program started this year will identify for consumers wines made from grapes grown with IP.
"It's a sustainable agriculture system, a whole-farm concept, modeled after a system Europe has had for a number of years," MacDonald explains. "We do allow the use of chemicals but they are restricted. No applications of broad spectrum herbicides or pesticides." There also are guidelines for fertilization and other practices.
A group of growers initiated a pilot program in 1996. Last year 35 vineyards participated, with about 1,800 acres or roughly 25 percent of Oregon's wine grape acreage.
"Carmo's the one who brought it to us. She had experience with integrated production and told us how it worked in Europe," says MacDonald. "Also, New Zealand started a program just before us and we looked at their model."
He's talking about Carmo Candolfi-Vasconcelos, a wine grape specialist who grew up in Switzerland and joined the OSU Extension Service in 1994.
"The implementation of Integrated Production in Oregon vineyards is very easy because Oregon is a paradise for growing grapes," says Candolfi-Vasconcelos, explaining that Oregon doesn't have many of the grape pests and diseases that plague grape growers in Europe.
"We don't want to ruin it here," she says. "If we start being careless about the environment we'll get out of balance. For example, if you apply too much nitrogen, you promote excessive leaf growth, causing shading and poor fruit quality. Too many leaves also create a microclimate conducive to fungus diseases. Also, insects develop a lot faster when feeding on high-nitrogen leaves. Then if you use broad spectrum pesticides to kill them you kill friendly insects that help control pests."
A list of all the projects that seem to fit under, or near, the sustainable agriculture banner would be really long. But here are a few of the responses that came in when Oregon's Agricultural Progress asked OSU researchers and extension agents for examples:
"Four dairy farmers in the Willamette Valley have agreed to help me keep track of the nutrients that flow through their farm," says Mike Gangwer, a regional dairy agent in the Marion County Extension Office. "We're measuring numbers of animals, amount of manure from these animals, and storage losses while the manure is kept in a pond or concrete slab. Then the farmers are recording where the manure is applied to the field. We are measuring crop yield and taking field soil samples at the 12-inch depth."
"Our goals," says Gangwer, "are reducing nitrogen loss as nitrate in the wet winter months and reducing applications of manure on fields that have excess phosphorus already in the top foot of soil. And we are trying to grow more (dairy cattle) feed that is fed by manure nutrients. In our first year of record keeping, we have discovered that some fields have had excessive amounts of nutrients applied that could represent a threat to groundwater. The dairy farmers have reduced manure applications on these fields. The four dairy farmers do not purchase any commercial fertilizer; instead, they use manure nutrients as feed for all crops."
"For several years I've been teaching workshops on the use of biological control in greenhouses and nurseries," says Robin Rosetta, a district extension agent at OSU's North Willamette Research and Extension Center south of Portland. "These workshops, dubbed 'Biocontrol Bonanzas,' give growers an opportunity to learn about the many biological control agents available for pest problems. Our growers are very excited about this 'bug eat bug' concept."
"Twenty growers direct-seeded 4,000 acres [with wheat and other grain crops] in the spring of 1998. This season we anticipate 6,000 acres will be direct-seeded," says Don Wysocki, an OSU extension specialist at the Columbia Basin Agricultural Research Center at Pendleton. With direct-till, seeds go into untilled ground that still holds the remains of the previous crop. A major goal of the technique is to reduce soil erosion that is chipping away at farming in the Columbia Basin.
"Several OSU faculty, including Mary Corp, Kathryn Kettel, Mike Stoltz and I have worked with a multi-agency group to develop a program that provides an incentive for farmers to try direct seeding technology. The program pays a rebate to growers to plant up to 200 acres of direct-seeded crops," says Wysocki, noting that a federal Environmental Protection Agency grant pays for the rebates.
"Separately," he says, "we [the federal, state and local partners] didn't have the resources or expertise to devise a solution. Together, we worked out a method that addresses the problem in a cost effective and socially acceptable manner."
"I've spent about half my time in recent years attempting to reduce the impact of vegetable cropping systems on ground and surface water quality by reducing inputs of fertilizers, particularly nitrogen," says Del Hemphill, a horticulturist at OSU's North Willamette Research and Extension Center south of Portland. "This would save growers money, of course, although at present prices for nitrogen fertilizers, the environmental benefit is the driving force in wanting to reduce applications of nitrogen fertilizer."
The research, including on-farm work and collaboration with researchers in other disciplines, has been successful in reducing over-application of nitrogen to crops and in using winter cover crops to prevent leaching of residual nitrogen in the soil, Hemphill says.
"We've been working on a procedure for fine-tuning nitrogen management of winter wheat in western Oregon. We're using a test called a mineralizable nitrogen test," says Russ Karow, an extension cereal grains specialist in OSU's Department of Crop and Soil Sciences who's working with soil scientists Neil Christensen, John Hart, research assistant Ernie Marx and graduate students Dost Baloch and Maqsood Qureshi.
"Results of field work we've done to accompany the development of this procedure have shattered some traditional beliefs that valley growers have had about nitrogen needs of wheat following certain other crops," says Karow. "If adopted, use of this test will allow growers to better predict nitrogen needs and improve both environmental and economic sustainability of their products."
"We took a lot of heat professionally," recalls Marion County extension agent Dan McGrath of his early connection to research and extension work associated with the sustainable agriculture label. "We [research and extension personnel] often felt trapped between well-meaning environmental advocates and well-meaning farmers.
"But I think about it all in a new way now," McGrath says. He explains that his new lease on professional life stems in large part from farmers, particularly some with "high inputs, high yields" backgrounds, who no longer worry about philosophy or wording.
To illustrate, he mentions a snap bean project he's collaborating on with OSU researchers and extension specialists from several disciplines. The goal is to identify ways to improve the entire cropping system, including planting techniques, fertilization and pest control. An early roundtable discussion surprised him.
"We [OSU personnel] were impressed by the depth of concern about the environment, and cropping systems as a whole, that emerged in discussions with growers," he recalls.
McGrath says problems with profitability and productivity, and environmental problems, are leading to "some genuine questioning in the grower community about the trajectory of modern farming." And he believes society needs to prepare as best it can for unanticipated bumps the future will present. "What we consider sustainable now may not be in 20 years," he says.
He doesn't believe farmers should shoulder the entire burden.
"It's easy to impose environmental and social responsibility on farm families," he says. "We give them responsibility, in the form of regulations, all the time. But maintaining a healthy environment and taking care of people who work in agriculture, such as farm laborers, for example, benefits us all.
"In this country we don't have a cheap food policy. We have a cheap raw commodity policy. A tiny amount of wheat is in a loaf of bread, considering the price. If you and I paid 5 cents for the wheat in a loaf and 5 cents for conservation in producing the wheat, that wouldn't drive the price of bread up too much. But most of us want the highest quality for the cheapest price.
"The salmon thing [listing of various species as endangered]," he adds, "is going to have a profound impact on agriculture. But it's not going to be equitable. We'll take land out of production [for environmental reasons] without addressing social equity. We'll lose farm families."
With such forces at play, what will the agriculture of tomorrow look like?
"We may see a patchwork of approaches across the Oregon landscape," McGrath surmises: "1) precision, high-yield, high-tech farms; 2) smaller-scale, integrated commercial production; 3) small, part-time farms; and 4) organic farms.
"In a patchwork there's room for all this. Some of us may have to change our assumptions. We're talking about what is the right balance of three pillars: economic viability, environmental soundness and social equity. There may be several ways to get at that balance."