For a lot of agricultural crop producers in eastern Oregon’s Malheur County, an important sign of success lies at the core of an onion.
“When you cut an onion in half you want it to look just like a rifle target,” said Clint Shock, superintendent of Oregon State University’s Malheur Experiment Station near Ontario, on the far eastern edge of Oregon. “Single-centered onions are the highest quality and have the highest value.”
That’s because food processors can take a single-core onion and transform it into a complete set of onion rings with very little waste. Onions with two or three centers don’t offer that perfect set of rings. Thanks in part to ongoing research at the Malheur Experiment Station, growers in Malheur County are producing more of those higher value, super colossal onions with single centers.
Agricultural crop and livestock production and food processing are the biggest earners in the Malheur County economy, and onions are the highest value cash crop. Malheur County earned $206.4 million in agricultural sales in 2005, ranking ninth among Oregon counties. The 2005 onion harvest in the county brought over $48.9 million in earnings.
In addition to agriculture, history lies at the core of Malheur County. It was here that pioneers heading west on the Oregon Trail first set foot on the present-day state of Oregon. Fur trappers had preceded the pioneers in the early 1800s, and gold rushes in the 1860s and ’70s stimulated settlement and ranching. By the 1930s irrigated agriculture, made possible by the damming of the Owyhee and Malheur rivers, was well-established around Ontario and Vale, an area also known as the Treasure Valley, which extends east into Idaho.
The Treasure Valley boasts a rich cultural tradition. Many of the first settlers were of Basque origin. During World War II, when Japanese-Americans were being forced into internment camps in other parts of the West, they were welcomed to Ontario, where many eventually settled. It was during these war years that Malheur County residents passed a tax levy to purchase land for an agricultural experiment station.
Each year, Malheur Station researchers initiate a remarkable variety of agricultural research projects—from drip irrigation on alfalfa varieties to effects of water stress on potatoes; from irrigation in hybrid poplars to weed control in sugar beets, and from wheat variety trials to soil data transmission—to support local producers.
The range of activity is impressive, but for Shock, all research endeavors at the station share at least two common goals. The first is to find ways to help growers maintain profitability and the second is to improve the sustainability of agricultural production in the region.
“Generating sufficient income to stay in business has never been more difficult than it is today for growers in this area,” Shock said. “Growers in Malheur County, just like growers throughout Oregon, face increasing regional, national, and global competition. To remain economically viable, growers must be able to efficiently produce high-quality crops.
“And I think sustainable is a word that describes a good deal of the work we do throughout the entire Oregon Agricultural Experiment Station,” Shock added. “We’re always striving to make agriculture more sustainable in this area so that we maintain the productivity of the land.”
Sustainability is central to groundwater resources in northern Malheur County, where thousands of acres of irrigated onions, potatoes, and sugar beets are grown. In the late 1940s, when growers began using more nitrogen fertilizers and herbicides to boost crop production and control weeds, groundwater contamination became a major problem. By 1986 excessive nitrogen content was detected in wells around the area. Officials soon realized the extent of the groundwater contamination problem spreading beneath the irrigated crop fields. The Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) designated the region a groundwater management area, the only one in Oregon at the time, and set the stage for a Malheur Experiment Station success story that is still playing out today.
Malheur Station researchers responded by launching a series of projects to help growers find more efficient ways to apply fertilizers, control weeds, and irrigate crops to prevent agricultural chemicals from getting into groundwater resources and surface irrigation water runoff from crop fields.
Growers welcomed the new techniques, according to Jim Nakano, a long-time Malheur County grower and former chair of the Malheur Watershed Council. “Back then the DEQ was working directly with us to develop alternatives that would reduce nitrate contaminants in groundwater. Some growers were concerned about introduction of regulations that would be difficult to live with.
“Fortunately, the Malheur Experiment Station and Shock provided research that led to a range of new management practices that were acceptable to growers and officials and addressed the groundwater problem effectively,” Nakano said.
The approach appears to be working. According to a recent Oregon DEQ report, “estimates of the area-wide nitrate trend [in the Malheur Groundwater Management area] suggest that it is either flat or slightly declining.” Traces of herbicide residues in groundwater are declining sharply, according to Shock, due to growers voluntarily transforming how they grow crops.
Research in state-of-the-art irrigation continues at the Malheur Experiment Station with a device called the Granular Matrix Sensor. Just three inches long, the GMS sensor is buried 8 to 12 inches deep in a crop field. The sensor measures soil moisture and transmits data to a meter at the edge of the field. Deploying an array of sensors in a field allows growers to accurately monitor soil moisture on a day-to-day and spot-by-spot basis and, therefore, accurately control their irrigation.
Drip irrigation delivers a constant trickle of water to crops through a plastic strip called drip tape, installed in the field before planting. It allows growers to maintain a consistent level of soil moisture throughout an entire field, precision that is not possible where water is distributed through furrows or by overhead sprinklers.
“Drip irrigation systems deliver only the amount of water and nitrogen fertilizer that is needed, so losses through leaching into groundwater are minimal,” said Shock.
As Shock has pushed the precision irrigation envelope even further, he believes Malheur County growers are among world leaders in successful application of drip irrigation in onions.
“Today there is vastly less nitrogen being applied to crops, and water is being used more carefully,” said Shock. “The amount of soil loss from agricultural land is way down, probably down two-thirds over the last 20 years.”
“Ten years ago less than one percent of the onions grown here were under drip irrigation,” said Lynn Jensen, staff chair of the Malheur County office of the OSU Extension Service. “Currently, we have about 15 percent of our onion acreage under drip irrigation, and that number is increasing every year,” he said. “And research is continuing on drip irrigation applications in potatoes, poplars, corn, alfalfa, and wheat.”
Even more precise field crop monitoring may be achieved with an entirely new application called the SensorWeb, a network of small data-gathering pods arrayed across a field, capable of measuring light, air and soil temperature, and soil moisture at depths of 4 to 12 inches every five minutes. The SensorWeb concept was originally developed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Jet Propulsion Laboratory to monitor rocket launches. At the Malheur Experiment Station it is being used to study the differences between furrow, sprinkler, and drip irrigation and their influences on potato yield and quality.
And the innovative research doesn’t end there. New crops such as waxy wheat and waxy barley are attracting grower attention as novel foods and new bio-based products.
“Waxy wheat contains large amounts of high-volume starches that absorb more water than other types of wheat starch, and their crisp, snappy texture makes them ideal for the snack food and cereal market,” said Steve Norberg, a crop scientist in the Malheur County office of the OSU Extension Service. “Scientists are studying how these starches might be used in food and possibly in industrial products such as adhesives.”
Barley is attracting more grower interest because of a recent finding by the Food and Drug Administration that soluble fibers in the crop may help reduce cholesterol levels in human diets. Norberg and other experiment stations researchers are working to develop new waxy barley varieties adapted to eastern Oregon growing conditions.
Waxy grains may become an important economic crop in eastern Oregon because of a new bio-refinery coming to the area. John Hamilton, project manager for Treasure Valley Renewable Resources, says that the value-added processing facility will convert waxy grains and specially selected corn into basic components for use in nutraceuticals, cereals, fiber bars, and energy drinks, as well as for fish and animal feeds and bio-based fuels. If the venture is successful, local growers may gain profitable alternative crops in the future to grow in rotation with the onions, potatoes, and sugar beets they have been growing for decades.
“It’s a brand new world for our agricultural producers,” said Shock. “Markets have grown more competitive in recent years, and profit margins are razor thin. Growers have to constantly improve production efficiency to stay in farming.”
The top priority for Shock and the Malheur Experiment Station research group is to help growers do that.