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OSU and farmers are collaborating on sustainability research.

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.

Man looking at stubble in a field.

Mark Dickman, who farms near Mt. Angel, checks stubble in a field where he's using minimum tillage to improve soil conditions. Photo: Bob Rost

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.

Cornfield.

Some Willamette Valley farmers are experimenting with alternative forms of tillage to grow vegetable crops such as sweet corn. Their goals include better soil and less erosion and chemical runoff. Photo: Bob Rost

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:

  • Reducing erosion.
  • Improving soil fertility and structure by returning organic matter to it, perhaps reducing the need for expensive fertilizers.
  • Minimizing disruption of desirable organisms such as earthworms and plant growth-promoting microorganisms.
  • Crowding and shading out weeds with cover crops, reducing the need for expensive herbicides.
  • Reducing the need for irrigation water. (In theory the roots of cover crops, and improved soil structure, help the soil retain more of winter rainwater).
  • Cutting fuel costs and soil compaction by limiting the use of tractors and other heavy equipment.

"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."

Man examining crops in a field.

OSU horticulture professor John Luna examines hairy vetch, a cover crop. Planted in the off season, cover crops hold the soil in place and can provide other benefits such as adding organic matter to it. Photo: Bob Rost

"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]."

Men walking in tall grass with dairy barn in background.

OSU extension agent Mike Gangwer, left, with Canby dairy farmer Paul Staehly, who is tracking nutrient flow to make his operation more sustainable. Photo: Bob Rost

"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."

Men kneeling in tilled field.

OSU crop scientist Richard Dick, left, with Albany-area farmer Peter Kenagy. In the background is a no-till drill, designed to plant seeds directly through stubble from the previous year's crop. Photo: Bob Rost

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:

  • A simple lab test to detect the level of enzymes associated with microorganisms. This is an early indicator of various soil biology characteristics and of the accumulation of organic matter.
  • "Aggregate distribution," basically putting soil through a sieve to measure the amount of larger and smaller pieces (aggregates). More of the larger aggregates indicates good porosity. That promotes water infiltration and storage, and aeration necessary for plant root development.
  • "Water aggregate stability." This involves dipping soil into water at a constant speed to determine how well soil can maintain its structure and resist erosion and compaction.
  • A method of measuring water infiltration.
  • A compaction test, where a handheld device called a penetrometer is pushed into the soil to find compacted layers.

"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."

Pumpkins in the back of large truck.

Pumpkins, a type of squash, produced with reduced tillage practices at Stahbush Island Farms near Corvallis, Oregon. Owners Bill and Karla Chambers began selling seeds. Now they sell the insides of the pumpkins to piemakers, and elsewhere for other uses. Photo: Lynn Ketchum

"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.

A tractor tills a field.

A strip-tiller a group of Willamette Valley vegetable growers are testing. The device breaks up only narrow seed beds, rather than disturbing all the soil in a field as conventional tillage equipment does. Photo: Bob Rost

"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:

Milk production

"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."

Man holding screened container filled with moths.

Marion County extension agent Dan McGrath is working with farmers on more sustainable pest control, both economically and environmentally. Here, he's captured cabbage looper moths. Photo: Bob Rost

"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."

Nursery crop production

"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."

Woman working in a greenhouse.

Robin Rosetta, a district agent at the North Willamette Research and Extension Center, is working with nursery growers on pest control. Photo: Bob Rost

Eastern Oregon grain production

"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."

Vegetable production

"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.

Rows in snapbean field.

Two ways of growing snap beans: In the upper photograph, the farmer used conventional tillage. Notice the bare soil between the rows. The lower photo is of a strip-till field, where only the seed bed was tilled before planting. The remains of a previous crop are between the rows. OSU's John Luna is collaborating with farmers on strip-till experimentation. Photos: John Luna

Snapbean field.

Western Oregon grain production

"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.

Man walking in a vineyard.

"We do allow...chemicals but they are restricted... There also are guidelines for fertilization and other practices," says vineyard owner Al MacDonald of Integrated Production, a system used on about 25 percent of Oregon's wine grape acreage. IP is modeled after a European system. Photo: Bob Rost

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."

Hands holding soil filled with worms.

Worms from Mark Dickman's soil. He claims minimum tillage and related practices increase the number of the creatures, which are good for the soil. Photo: Bob Rost

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."

WAR OF THE WORDS

You may have heard the term sustainable agriculture applied to farming or to farming-related research. It sounds pretty innocent, doesn't it? Probably not a phrase you'd expect to raise anyone's blood pressure or cause a debate. And the two words, in combination, do strike many people as promising and uplifting. But to others, those words are like fingernails on a chalkboard.

Erosion in a pear orchard.

Erosion in an Oregon pear orchard. Growers are experimenting with farming techniques that will improve soil stability. Photo: John Luna

"What has become increasingly disturbing to me, and others, in the past few years is the focus, philosophy and misleading information that the so-called sustainable agriculture movement has been promoting," says Bill Mansour, a long-time vegetable crops specialist with the Oregon State University Extension Service.

"As one author recently stated," he continues, "the public now seems to associate everything that is bad about agriculture with conventional high-yield farming and all that is good with the sustainable agriculture movement. I believe most of this is due to lack of understanding coupled with a lot of misinformation."

The sustainable agriculture movement, some say, stretches back philosophically to the 1960s and environmental concerns about the synthetic insecticide DDT and renewed interest in organic farming without human-made herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers, which is how things were done before World War II.

But in terms of national policy, the movement started formally in the middle 1980s when the U.S. Department of Agriculture established a small program called Low Input Sustainable Agriculture (LISA), inviting funding proposals for research and related work. Mansour contends that although LISA caught the attention of scientists, most of them eventually rejected it because the low input part "simply did not compute" in terms of satisfying the country's food and fiber needs. It is a fact that the words "low input" eventually were dropped from the name, and the program evolved into the USDA's current Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program.

"A brilliant move," Mansour says about the name change. "Like motherhood and the flag, apple pie and ice cream, who can be against that? What does that make the work of most researchers and extension faculty, non-sustainable?

"Worldwide high-yield agriculture," he adds, "has allowed us to feed a world population that has doubled since 1956 and has done so providing more calories per capita from almost the exact same number of acres that were being cropped in 1956." This has saved about two and a half times the land area of the United States from the plow, he says, asserting that "high-yield agriculture has done more to preserve wildlife habitat and the environment than anything sustainable agriculture proponents could ever dream of accomplishing, with practices that most often provide lower yields at higher costs."

Bill Mansour certainly isn't the only person with those views. On the other hand, there appear to be plenty of researchers, extension agents and farmers who don't see it that way.

"To say that high-yield agriculture has done more to preserve wildlife habitat and the environment than anything sustainable agriculture proponents could dream of accomplishing, with practices that most often lower yields at higher costs, is simply unsubstantiated. Where is the data?" says Richard Dick, an OSU soil scientist.

"Sustainability is the middle ground that seeks any technology that maximizes yield and profits while maintaining the natural resource base and maintaining environmental quality," he adds. "And it's not based on whether an input is synthetic."

Mansour says he isn't against change.

"Modern high-yield agriculture benefits from continued re-examination of its practices," he says. "If some of these can't stand scrutiny, they deserve to be changed or dropped. But as long as there are hungry people in the world I feel we have an ethical responsibility to use our agricultural resources as efficiently as possible."

But OSU horticulture professor John Luna contends society needs a significantly different approach to agriculture.

"It's [sustainable agriculture] not a trivial term. We are talking about a very fundamental difference in paradigms-one industrial [traditional farming] and one biological," Luna asserts. "We have a lot of big problems in agriculture. Just breeding bigger broccoli or achieving higher yields isn't enough. Farmers are in economic trouble. There's a lack of profitability. What about losing family farms? What about keeping salmon in our streams [while producing food and fiber]?"