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Oregon State University Agricultural Research updates.

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What does it mean when food is certified as sustainable, organic, or salmon-safe? That’s a question that nettles both growers and consumers.

To help sort out the answer, there soon will be a new clearinghouse of information and technical support for farmers and ranchers, so they can meet the increasingly stringent and detailed requirements of certification.

Thayne Dutson, Dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences at Oregon State University, convened a group of more than 27 organizations, from growers to environmental groups, to create the Oregon Sustainable Agriculture Resource Center (OSARC), to be located on the OSU campus.

Increasingly, consumers are willing to pay a little more to know that their food has been produced in a way that ensures public goods, such as clean water and air, habitat for fish and wildlife, and greater energy efficiency. But up to now, the technical information necessary to certify sustainable practices was scattered across many state agencies or other resource groups.

“We believe there is enormous support for the value of Oregon agriculture and how Oregon family farmers care for their land, the environment, and nearby communities,” said Rick Jacobson, president of NORPAC Foods, Oregon’s largest fruit and vegetable cooperative. NORPAC growers recognized early on that they needed better access to often highly technical information about soil and water conservation, integrated pest management, safe and fair working conditions, and habitat conservation. OSARC was created through the governor’s Oregon Solutions Project to help connect growers with the information they need.

Photo by Tom Gentle

“Oregon farmers are leaders in producing safe, wholesome, high-quality food. We believe the information that will be available through OSARC will help them continue to meet the challenges of production, global competition, and sustainability,” Dutson said.

Bird Flu: Prepare But Don't Overreact

Chicken photo by iStock

Although fears of deadly “bird flu” have caused an explosion of concern around the world, the disease does not appear to present an imminent threat to Oregon poultry consumers or the state’s poultry industry, according to Jim Hermes, an Oregon State University Extension Service poultry expert.

“Even if there is an outbreak, don’t panic,” Hermes said. “If you raise chickens or other domestic birds, figure out how you’ll isolate them from wild birds that might be a source of the flu virus. You might have to add fencing or a coop. These are biosecurity measures that the poultry industry has been using for years to isolate their flocks from other birds.”

In addition, there’s confusion about the viruses that cause various types of flu. A website operated by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services offers the following explanation:

“Seasonal (or common) flu is a respiratory illness that can be transmitted person to person. Most people have some immunity, and a vaccine is available.

“Avian flu is caused by influenza viruses that occur naturally among wild birds. A variant called H5N1 is deadly to domestic fowl and can be transmitted from birds to humans. There is no human immunity and no vaccine is available.

“Pandemic flu is virulent human flu that causes a global outbreak, or pandemic, of serious illness. Because there is little natural immunity, the disease can spread easily from person to person. Currently, there is no pandemic flu.”

Hermes noted that “bird flu is not something people can contract from eggs and chicken meat if you follow standard food safety procedures: wash your hands, avoid cross-contamination when preparing food, and cook food so that it reaches a temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit.”

For more information, visit: PandemicFlu.gov

Cheese specialist leads the whey

Lisbeth Goddik. Photo by Bob Rost

Cheese whiz Lisbeth Goddik, a dairy specialist with OSU Extension, is helping bring a European flavor to Oregon's artisan cheeses. Photo: Bob Rost

Gorgonzola, Camembert, Gouda. This isn’t your grandfather’s American cheese. Consumption of specialty cheeses is skyrocketing in the United States. But unfortunately for local dairy farmers, most of these cheeses are imported.

“There’s no reason why Oregon farmers can’t produce these specialty cheeses with the same taste and quality as the imports,” said Lisbeth Goddik, Oregon State University’s Extension dairy specialist.

Educated in Denmark and trained in France, Goddik teaches cheesemaking in OSU’s Department of Food Science and Technology and has brought European knowledge to Oregon’s small-scale artisan cheesemakers.

For example, Goddik worked side-by-side with David Gremmels, co-owner of the award-winning Rogue Valley Creamery in Central Point, Ore., to improve the creamery’s production standards and launch its national marketing strategies. Gremmels said that Goddik’s “astute, experienced palate” and sensory evaluation helped ensure that his artisan cheddars taste a world away from most commercial cheddar cheese.

When Goddik joined OSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences in 1999, Oregon’s cheese industry was dominated by a few large-scale operations. Since then nearly a dozen small-scale artisan and farmstead cheesemaking companies have opened across Oregon.

Oregon agricultural sales top $4 billion in 2005

Oregon agricultural sales. Graphic by Nancy Marshall

Oregon’s agricultural industry represents hundreds of commodities, from alfalfa to wine. Last year, sales across all industries topped $4 billion, the highest recorded income since OSU economists began compiling production data more than 40 years ago.

Pollution could threaten white sturgeon

Lisbeth Goddik. Photo by Bob Rost

Fisheries biologist Molly Webb wrestles a white sturgeon more than ten times her weight in order to examine the giant fish before releasing it. Photo: Grant Feist

White sturgeon on the upper Columbia River may be in trouble. Stuck behind hydroelectric dams, there’s no escape from pesticides, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCSs), and mercury that collect in the impounded lakes upstream from dams, according to two recent studies by Oregon State University researchers.

Carl Schreck and Grant Feist, fisheries biologists in OSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences, have correlated the sturgeons’ growth and reproductive abnormalities with accumulated toxic contaminants in their livers, muscle tissue, and sex organs. They have also studied sturgeon living downstream from the lowest dam on the river, Bonneville Dam, in water flowing unobstructed to the Pacific Ocean. They found these fish have lower levels—although not zero levels—of pesticides, PCBs, and mercury in their tissues and have markedly better reproductive rates.

“We don’t know the exact source of contamination,” says Schreck, leader of the Oregon Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit. “The fish move and the stuff they eat moves. The Columbia contains naturally occurring mercury and receives input from numerous sources, so any population of fish at any one site can be exposed to a myriad of substances coming from upstream.”

North America’s largest freshwater fish, sturgeon can grow to 20 feet long, weigh more than 1,500 pounds, and live more than 100 years. The fossil record indicates that they’ve been around for at least 200 million years. Current fishing regulations prohibit taking small sturgeon to give them a fighting chance at maturity and prohibit taking large fish in an effort to preserve reproductive adults.

Sturgeon have always been an important food source for Oregon’s Native Americans, and now, as salmon runs diminish, sturgeon fillets and steaks are increasingly sold in Oregon’s fish markets. But because of their potentially high contaminant levels, Schreck cautions not to eat sturgeon at every meal.

Pears under glass

Pears. Photo courtesy of Pear Bureau Northwest

The color of Oregon winter pears will shine through glass containers, thanks to a new processing technology developed by food scientist Yanyun Zhao. Photo: courtesy of Pear Bureau Northwest

When Oregon pear growers began to explore packaging winter pears as unpeeled slices in clear glass jars, they wanted to retain the bright color of the skins.

Over the past three years, Yanyun Zhao, a food scientist at Oregon State University, has been refining techniques to preserve the skin color in pears canned with their peels on, so that the natural bright greens, reds, browns, and yellows will shine through the glass jar.

“The yellow and brown peels were no problem, but the greens and reds have been more challenging,” Zhao said.

As anyone who has cooked vegetables knows, much of the bright green color of fresh foods turns olive drab with cooking. Zhao’s initial challenge has been to retain the fresh color of green-skinned pears throughout the thermal processing. The result will soon be on grocers’ shelves: glass jars filled with three distinct colors of sliced pears. Zhao looks forward to the next innovation: a jar with four colors of pears, including the bright claret-color of red-skin pears.

Up to now, canned pears have been mostly the summer variety Bartlett, peeled, mixed with syrup and packaged in tin cans. Winter pears such as Anjou, Bosc, and Comice, whose brightly colored skins enliven holiday gift boxes, were limited to sales as fresh fruit.

Pears are the state’s 10th-largest agricultural commodity, with an annual value of $68 million. Growers in the Hood River region and Jackson County grow primarily winter pear varieties. The new clear-packaged product may provide a new use for some of their undersized pears that otherwise couldn’t be marketed.

“The idea is to create a higher quality, better looking product and see if we can bring back some of those consumers that have abandoned the canned pear,” says Dennis Anderson of Green & Green, the market development company that has helped spearhead the project.

Contaminants drift into the most pristine areas

Alaska. Photo by Adam Schwindt

"A float plane drops us off with all our equipment, and we hope the weather holds so they can come back to get us in three or four days," said Adam Schwindt, an OSU researcher with the WACAP team shown here sampling in the Alaskan backcountry. Photo: Adam Schwindt

High in mountain lakes and far north in Alaskan wilderness, researchers from Oregon State University are finding some of the world’s most toxic chemicals, possibly from sources as far away as Europe and Asia.

OSU researchers have trekked to wilderness lakes in the high Sierras, Rockies, and Cascade Mountains, as well as Alaska’s backcountry, carrying the bare essentials: 2,000 pounds of scientific equipment, inflatable boats, hand pumps, dry ice, food, and shelter for eight people for three days. In the winter, they have carved samples from the snowpack and returned with sleds and backpacks full of frozen samples. They are measuring contaminants in snow, soil, air, water, fish, and vegetation in places once thought to be among the most pristine areas in the world.

“We’ve found persistent chemicals, such as mercury and PCBs, in lakes in very remote areas,” said Michael Kent, director of the Center for Fish Disease Research at OSU and part of the multi-agency Western Airborne Contaminant Assessment Program. “We have seen physiological and pathological changes in the fish in these lakes and an accumulation of toxic chemicals in the water that could only have come in by air.”

Although the specific sources of these airborne contaminants are as yet unknown, other studies have shown that air masses can cross the Pacific Ocean from Asia to North America in just a few days. These air masses can carry coal smoke (a major source of mercury) and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) emitted from industrial sites in Russia, China, and elsewhere. When the air masses hit the mountains of western North America, the pollutants they carry begin to settle.

Staci Simonich is an expert in tracking signatures of airborne pollutants in global air currents. A professor in OSU’s Department of Environmental and Molecular Toxicology, she leads the project’s assessment of persistent organic pollutants.

“These compounds can travel long distances in the atmosphere, and they concentrate in cold environments,” Simonich explained. “Their chemistry allows them to volatilize and rise, then settle out for a time before volatilizing and rising again. As they warm and cool they hop-scotch their way into higher elevations.”

Many of these organic compounds settle in fatty tissues of fish, wildlife—and humans—and can reduce immune and reproductive functions and increase risk of cancer.

After completing their final year of field research this summer, the researchers will report their findings to the National Park Service in 2007.