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Arid lands in the northeast corner of Oregon are blooming thanks to a close working partnership between Agricultural Experiment Station researchers and local growers

In an arid, windblown corner of northeastern Oregon, the Hermiston Agricultural Research & Extension Center is an outpost of innovation.

No matter that summers are hot or that the area averages barely 9 inches of rainfall annually: Hermiston is now a place where watermelons are such a well-known crop that slices of them decorate Hermiston's Chamber of Commerce website the way roses decorate Portland.

Wrenching watermelons from the desert sums up a history of determination and innovation at the Hermiston Agricultural Research & Extension Center that stretches back almost a century.

"We have the latitude, and we have the attitude," said Gary Reed, an entomologist who is superintendent of the 14-member research and extension center. "Hermiston has a philosophy that if we can do it here and it's in agriculture, let's do it," said Reed, whose research is primarily responsible for the 1995 appearance of Oregon's first plot of commercially raised potatoes with built-in immunity to the Colorado potato beetle.

Reed heads the center's efforts in identifying pest insects and plant diseases, developing new crops and markets, and providing a broad variety of research and Extension educational information to agricultural producers living on nearly 500,000 acres of irrigated agriculture in the Columbia River basin.

Man kneeling in a watermelon field.

Horticulturist George Clough examines watermelon plants growing on water-conserving plastic film mulches at Walchli Farms near Hermiston. Scientists at the research center have helped turn watermelon production into a multi-million dollar agricultural industry in the Hermiston area. Photo: Tom Gentle

Six miles from the Columbia River near Hermiston, the Hermiston Agricultural Research & Extension Center (HAREC) is one of 13 Oregon State University research and extension centers that form a statewide pipeline between science and Oregon agriculture. And although the elements of cold and blight and livestock diseases have sometimes short-circuited attempts to energize the local agricultural economy during HAREC's 91-year presence in the community, persistence and a tradition of innovation are finally paying off big.

In just the past 15 years, Reed has seen the partnership between HAREC and area agricultural producers lead to an economic boom that has made the region the fastest-growing agricultural center in Oregon.

"Since I've been here, we've seen farm gate receipts go from $100 million to $300 million, mostly from irrigated acres," Reed said.

It has been a rapid spurt, made possible by decades of work that dates back to 1908, when water from the Umatilla River was dammed and diverted into the Cold Springs Reservoir. It was a new economic beginning for a tiny hamlet once known as Six Mile House, a bar and hotel that served as a wayside stop for land travelers and ship's crews navigating the Columbia River.

R.W. Allen, the first superintendent of the research center, arrived in 1909 to set up the research and experiment station. He envisioned land covered with crops like potatoes, alfalfa, watermelons and wheat.

"Allen was the father of irrigated agriculture in Umatilla County," said Reed. "He identified all of the major crops that would grow here."

Of course, growing vegetables in a region with 9 inches of rainfall a year was a challenge that took more than irrigation and determination to overcome. The ongoing partnership between growers and researchers has made the difference.

Pivot irrigation in a field.

Center-pivot irrigation systems keep crop fields productive in the dry Hermiston climate. Photo: Tom Gentle

Farmers such as Doug Strebin of Strebin Farms in Irrigon have long depended on the research support the center provides. Strebin and his brother, George, run a farming operation that their father began more than 40 years ago. They grow fresh-market potatoes, onions, sweet corn and field corn. Such crops have been beset by blights, fungi and pests that thrive in the region's combination of heat and irrigation.

"(The Research Center) has helped us with early blight and late blight control," said Strebin, who has an ongoing working relationship with Phil Hamm, an Extension plant pathologist and researcher. Hamm's work with farmers includes identifying and finding ways to control plant diseases and plant pests.

Hamm and Strebin currently are working together to develop a control for smut problems of sweet corn.

Hamm said growers are patient with the strict scientific field-testing protocol necessary for development of new plant and disease controls. "I can be kind of a pain because I am always telling farmers just how to grow something under test conditions," said Hamm. "But they do it, and they do it right."

Strebin and his brother farm a total of 3,200 acres scattered between Irrigon and Troutdale. They are willing to adhere to a strict protocol on their test plots because these experimental crops often yield solutions to the pests and diseases that might otherwise decimate their crops.

"Without the Experiment Station, I don't know what this place would have been," said long-time Hermiston mayor Frank Harkenrider, 73. "The station researchers were ready with answers for whatever came along to attack the farmers' crops." A native and lifelong resident of Hermiston, Harkenrider has seen what hard weather and hard times can do to a promising agricultural enterprise, despite the best intentions.

A large pile of potatoes.

HAREC researchers helped growers protect potato crops from late blight disease. Photo: Bob Rost

In the late 1940s, as the region's wheat, potato and alfalfa industries struggled along, the U.S. Army located the Umatilla Army Chemical Depot seven miles west of Hermiston. Established during World War II, it currently stores 3,717 tons-about 12 percent-of the nation's chemical weapons stockpile. Although a stable, if controversial, employer, the depot has not provided the type of economic growth that the region wanted.

Tom Davidson, who was superintendent at the Research and Extension Center from 1957 to 1981, said the locals always wanted to see Hermiston famous for its agriculture.

Local farmers and ranchers and sheep-herders tried many new ideas over the decades.

"When I first came here, (the farmers) had turkeys," Davidson said. That industry fell on hard times when the expense of raising the turkeys outstripped their value at market.

Various plant diseases that plagued orchard and vegetable growers put a stop to early attempts at vegetable and potato processing.

"You have to have the crops before you have the process," Davidson said.

Man leaning against a tree.

Tom Davidson, near the Austrian pines at HAREC. Superintendent from 1957 to 1981, Davidson worked with growers to find better production methods in the 1960s and 70s. Photo: Tom Gentle

Finding new crops and commodities and developing ways to produce them efficiently became HAREC's specialty. Soil scientists and horticulturists developed new plant varieties that could resist diseases. Other researchers worked to develop feed for cattle, hogs and sheep that would enable them to grow lean and healthy.

"We built feed lot sheds and worked with the local people," Davidson said. "Whatever they needed to know, we covered it fully."

George Clough, agricultural research horticulturist, worked to improve the water-use efficiency and timing of the center-pivot irrigation systems that HAREC helped to pioneer in the late-1960s. These huge center-pivot systems are now timed to deliver the precise amount of water crops can absorb with the least evaporation at the most effective times of day.

In the late 1980s, Clough developed new melon varieties and new drip irrigation and plastic film mulches to conserve water. The area's melon industry is now valued at $7 million annually.

Plant pathologist Hamm and laboratory manager Joy Jaeger, with the help of research assistant Mike Baune, continue their work with farmers to find new ways to control vegetable diseases. Their lab provides the resources to diagnose plant disease problems. Their recent work includes efforts to control nematodes in tomato, potato, onion and pepper crops.

The HAREC team has worked together with area growers to execute a simple two-fold strategy: Find ways to attract and keep processing plants to the area to add value to the crops growing there, and find new crops to grow.

Five years after his arrival in Hermiston, Reed was gratified to see the arrival of the Hermiston Foods Plant, one of the few new vegetable processing plants built in the Pacific Northwest in the past 15 years.

Men watching peas pour into a bin.

Roy Stephen (left) and Gary Reed, superintendent of HAREC. Stephen is manager at Hermiston Foods Plant, Norpac Inc., a major vegetable processing plant in the Hermiston area. Photo: Tom Gentle

"It returned $30 million the first year," Reed said. The plant now employs 450 people.

Three onion dehydration plants followed closely behind.

Lamb-Weston Inc. opened a plant that makes french fries and now employs 500 people. And the Krusteaz food processing company, famous for its just-add-water baking mixes, also opened a large milling and coating operation for french-fried potatoes.

Now as the Tillamook Creamery breaks ground on its new $60 million cheese-making plant, and new crop varieties fill irrigated crop circles, Harkenrider credits the strong link between HAREC and the community for Hermiston's renaissance.

It is a renaissance that has spread into the town as well in a beautification project that Davidson remembers from the 1950s.

"The Rotary Club and the Experiment Station brought trees back from Pennsylvania-Austrian pines," he said. "We grew them at the station, and then garden clubs in Hermiston planted them at schools and around town. They are still all there."

Reed sees the future as holding more of the same kind of cooperation. He erected a monument to all of the people whose donations of time, money and work have helped to realize innovative projects begun at HAREC.

Current research projects at the Center include developing new varieties of melons to add to the local crop mix, then building a plant to process and freeze melon balls.

Although California's fertile inland central valleys now produce most of the nation's melons, Hermiston area growers believe they have what it takes to compete with the golden state's agricultural production dynamo-the right latitude and plenty of the right attitude.

Published in: Food Systems, People