In 1948, Malcolm Johnson arrived in Redmond, Oregon, with a pair of household scales. A researcher with Oregon’s Agricultural Experiment Station, Johnson was sent from Oregon State College to central Oregon to provide local expertise to farmers through the OSC Deschutes Experimental Project.
“Horses were just going out of use when I got here,” recalled Johnson in a 1980 interview with Oregon’s Agricultural Progress.
Traveling from ranch to ranch to conduct his research, Johnson had only a woodshed for equipment and a good relationship with local growers. He had no university land or facilities to conduct agricultural research, so he carried out his investigations in farmers’ fields.
“The big hitch, of course, was that you couldn’t do any long-term or specialized research on a farmer’s land,” Johnson said.
After a short break to the Midwest to earn his doctorate, Johnson returned to central Oregon in 1960 and started an AES branch station at Madras and Redmond. In 1978, he helped establish an additional site at Powell Butte.
Since Johnson first arrived in central Oregon, dusty lava roads have given way to sprawling highways and traffic jams in one of the fastest growing regions in the West.
In 1983, a few years after Johnson retired, Central Oregon Agricultural Research Center became the first Oregon State University recipient of an Oregon lottery grant. The funds helped develop a program to improve potato variety development capabilities and develop a new testing field in Madras. In 1991, the branch station relocated headquarters from Redmond into new facilities and 80 acres of fields just north of Madras, on land leased from the City of Madras and Jefferson County.
“The Madras land had never been farmed, except for dryland crops,” recalled Fred Crowe, superintendent of Central Oregon Agricultural Research Station (COARC) from 1984 to 1997 and currently a professor of plant pathology at OSU. “The soil was pristine, a rare thing to have in research.”
At about 2,100 feet above sea level, the Madras facility represents the lower, milder growing conditions in central Oregon, said Crowe. Here, researchers conduct investigations on seed crops, grass seed, cereals, onion disease and alternative crops.
At about 3,300 feet above sea level and 50 miles southeast of Madras lies COARC’s second site, Powell Butte, with fields and facilities for potato and forage research.
“Both stations help us represent the diversity of agriculture in the greater intermountain area,” said Crowe, who conducts research on diseases of onions, potatoes and seed crops.
Most COARC faculty have “split appointments,” combining research for OSU’s Agricultural Experiment Station and outreach to local growers on behalf of the OSU Extension Service. COARC faculty are quick to credit local growers for their hard work helping to secure and support the center’s facilities and research.
“Local farmers are amazing,” Crowe said. “They donate their time in in-kind services, in lobbying for funds, in developing the farmland. It has been a huge effort on their part. We are as connected with local growers as any OSU branch station in the state.”
Once dominated by forage and grazing-related agriculture, central Oregon agriculture is becoming ever more diverse, just like the new communities that stretch between Redmond and the bustling city of Bend.
“We have a unique mix of specialty crops, many of which are neither supported by commodity organizations nor are the focus of grants,” explained Clint Jacks, current superintendent at COARC. “To keep relevant, we have to be innovative and resourceful. Our growers are invaluable to us, as they collaborate with on- and off-station research, generously supplying us with land and resources and tolerating the inconvenience caused by our research.”
Locally stationed staff, as well as those from the OSU campus and other research institutions, conduct research at COARC. Research projects range from exploring new methods of drip irrigation and managing field burning smoke to developing new crop and seed varieties.
“That which does not kill us makes us stronger” seems a fitting proverb for seed crop agriculture. High, dry and cold, the climate in central Oregon has always posed challenges to those who grow crops. But this same tough environment provides just the right conditions to produce excellent, high-value seed for those crops.
“Our short growing season and hard winters make it more difficult for insect pests and diseases to build up,” explained Steve James, COARC potato researcher. “Our cool nights force flowering and excellent seed production,” added Jacks. “While the total acreage of seed crops is relatively small, around 12,000 acres per year, seed crops have provided a stabilizing force within a volatile agricultural market.”
Seed growers in central Oregon produce about 95 percent of the nation’s “baby” carrot seed, as well as a significant share of the seed for garlic, onion, bluegrass and bentgrass. The growing conditions also produce superb flower seed and pungent herbs, as COARC research has proven.
Growing top-notch seed is a lucrative business, said Jacks. Bringing a crop to maturity and harvesting it for its seed can command a much higher price per acre than selling the crop itself. But it is a lot harder to do. COARC researchers have nothing but praise for the skillfulness of central Oregon seed growers.
Managing fields for seed production is another challenge. Grass seed growers burn fields to rid them of soil-borne diseases. And where there is fire, there’s smoke. Marvin Butler, a crop scientist with COARC and the Jefferson County office of the OSU Extension Service, and research assistant Claudia Campbell help grass seed growers minimize the spread of field burning smoke to the urban areas of the county.
Each morning for the past five years, from late July through October, Campbell has launched one or two big helium-filled weather balloons into the central Oregon sky. By following the balloons as they drift, Campbell calculates wind speed and direction, and reports daily results to grass seed growers in Jefferson County.
“Basically, the balloon launch and observation refine what meteorologists predict about where smoke will drift,” she said. “The decision to allow burning that day is dependent on this information.”
Back in 1981, these growers began their own voluntary smoke management program, several years before safe burn days became mandatory.
“The growers want to be able to preserve their grass seed industry, so they are proactive about smoke management,” said Campbell. “Growers pay a burning fee that is assessed by how many acres of grass seed they burn.”
Other kinds of fires can’t be controlled. Wildfire in central Oregon forests and rangelands blackened hundreds of thousands of acres during recent summers. Land managers need to replant native grasses to help stabilize steep, erodable slopes laid bare after these fires. The only trouble is, agricultural production of native grass seed is relatively new, and local native grass seed is in short supply and quite expensive.
“There’s a lot of opportunity for commercially growing native grasses,” said Campbell. “With a new crop like native grass, growers have to learn by the seat of their pants. The costs are high, and a grower can’t afford to see what works or doesn’t work. So we’re trying to help.”
Native grasses for livestock grazing attracted many of the first settlers to central Oregon. Today, livestock-related activities make up about 60 percent of the agricultural sector in Deschutes, Jefferson and Crook counties, including rangeland grazing and management, irrigated pasture (forage), irrigated alfalfa, grass hay and grass seed straw.
Working over thousands of square miles of central and eastern Oregon, COARC forage specialist Mylen Bohle helps forage and pasture producers from Madras all the way to the Nevada and Idaho borders in Harney County.
“Forage crops are the Rodney Dangerfield of crops—they don’t get any respect,” laughed Bohle. “Believe it or not, forages are the number one crop in Oregon, in terms of acreage. And they are third or fourth in terms of dollar value. There are 13,500 producers of forage in Oregon.”
With his split appointment, Bohle conducts forage research at the Madras and Powell Butte facilities and delivers the results of his research to ranchers throughout the eastern part of the state as an Extension agronomist. Currently, he is testing more than 40 new varieties of alfalfa and 14 species of forage grasses for suitability to the local region. He also evaluates different harvest management strategies to help farmers get the highest yields and biggest economic return on their forage and pasture crops.
Working with other AES researchers and Extension faculty around the state, Bohle and his colleagues are coming up with ways to help forage producers manage nitrogen fertilizer to maximize yields and minimize water pollution. Good nitrogen management is also best for growers’ pocketbooks, Bohle said, because what they’ve paid for is used by the crops, not washed away in runoff.
Among the many crop investigations at COARC, potato research is among the oldest, playing a critical role in Oregon’s $300 million potato industry. Researcher Steve James has spent the better part of 30 years assisting with OSU’s tri-state potato program, in collaboration with Washington State University, the University of Idaho and USDA Agricultural Research Service. He and his colleagues conduct variety trials and test new varieties for seed, storage and cooking qualities, mainly at the Powell Butte facility.
Central Oregon has changed dramatically since Malcolm Johnson arrived in 1948. Once a region of quiet communities based on agriculture and natural resources, the area is now transforming into a center of development, commerce and tourism. The population has grown in the region by 50 percent over the past 10 years.
"The majority of people moving here now are coming for the quality of life, rather than for jobs," said Clint Jacks, who chairs OSU Extension offices in Crook and Jefferson counties and on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation, as well as being COARC supervisor. "This type of growth brings new values and ethics related to the environment, the economy and the quality of life.
"These changes increase the demand for wise stewardship of natural resources and for sound, broadly supported regional agricultural policies," continued Jacks. "It is imperative to engage special expertise and viewpoints of a wide range of individuals representing diverse interests."
Jacks and his colleagues foresee many changes for central Oregon agriculture. With fewer government subsidies available for agriculture, they see producers increasing efficiency and finding new crops with higher value. They see a time when water will be managed more efficiently using technologies such as drip irrigation. And they see international demand for regional products continuing to grow with free trade and the internet.
As the number of hobby farms increases, the number of livestock and crops grown on these parcels will also increase. Jacks foresees more small to mid-sized ranches, especially close to urban areas. He also sees an increased demand for the preservation of open space and viewsheds, along with the need for more space for development and urban growth.
“These are big changes for agriculture,” said Jacks. “The key to central Oregon’s future is not to dwell in the past. We need to think about where we want to be and how we plan to get there. Focusing on the past will not bring back the ‘good old days.’”