You are here

The Smiles We Left Behind

The Smiles We Left Behind header image
A writer gives us his thoughts on outstanding OSU agricultural research in the 20th century.

For me, reading history is like watching a parade. But instead of decorated floats and marching bands, I see a procession of men and women who, in their own time and situation, found themselves striving to change things. History is the ongoing story of this parade of individuals who caused change in the world. But just as interesting as the who and what of history is the why. Parades don't just happen. They spring from a time and place-the backdrop that gives us the "why" of history.

I kept coming back to these ideas while trying to put together my own parade-this article, a look at 10 major contributions in research made by the Oregon State University Agricultural Experiment Station over the past 100 years. I began the process by trying to visualize the United States, and the Oregon, that existed in 1899.

According to the history books, Americans in 1899, just like us today, anxiously anticipated the beginning of a new century, and they felt the past century had gone pretty well, all things considered. After all, the country had survived the tremendous upheaval of the Civil War, and there had been all kinds of wonderful new inventions, including steam engines, railroads, the telegraph, ocean liners, telephones and electric lights.

Woman and children gardening in 1914.

In the first half of the 20th century many Oregonians grew some, if not all, of their food. This was true in urban as well as rural parts of the state. Here, in 1914, children tend garden plots in Portland. Photo: Oregon State University Archives

Economically things weren't so bad in 1899 and most citizens looked forward to even more prosperous times in the 20th century. The New York Times on Dec. 31, 1899, noted in an editorial, "We step upon the threshold of 1900 which leads to the new century facing a still brighter dawn of civilization." On the West Coast, an editorial in the Portland Oregonian called 1899 "the most prosperous year Oregon has ever known."

On the farm, the era of mechanization had begun although tractors would not be common until well into the 1920s. In 1899 American farming was still operating under what one sociologist called "advanced plow culture," meaning the use of moldboard plows (a plow with a curved plate of iron attached to a plowshare for turning over the soil) drawn by draft animals. Another writer observed that "the changes that occurred between the early settlement of the colonies and the beginning of the 20th century were so slight that a farm boy of George Washington's time would have been quite at home on a farm of 1900."

Farm life was difficult, but "hard work, thrift, and 'right thinking' paid off for farmers," according to an author of the time.

The average 1899 farm included horses, cows, hogs, chickens, a large garden and root cellar in addition to fields for growing crops and/or orchards for fruit production. Families were usually large, with several children and everyone working. They made almost everything they needed for day-to-day living and bartered farm produce-eggs were one popular bartering item-for the few things they couldn't make at home.

Urban dwellers of the time weren't much different. Even in the city many families kept a cow, some chickens and a garden for fresh milk, eggs and vegetables.

By today's standards the United States of 1899 was a primitive place. Imagine trying to get through the day without supermarkets, fast food restaurants and drive-up windows.

Against this backdrop, the first agricultural researchers began their efforts to apply scientific methods to farming practices. They weren't always met with an enthusiastic audience.

Man on tractor in 1927.

A mechanical harvester, circa 1927. Earlier harvesters were powered by horses. Photo: Oregon State University Archives

In 1899, the idea of conducting an experiment was a newfangled notion for many farmers. They were accustomed to doing things the way their fathers, and their fathers' fathers, had. Science and scientific investigation were often viewed suspiciously, which is understandable considering that the Agricultural Experiment Station had been created only 12 years earlier in 1887 when the Hatch Act was passed by the U.S. Congress.

Eventually the practical benefits of what a writer called "book farming" became apparent. Farmers at the time knew almost nothing about soil and fertilizer properties, insect pests, or plant and animal diseases. The first Agricultural Experiment Station researchers, with their experimental methods, soon won the respect of many a farmer in Oregon and throughout the country. New generations of farmers would come to rely on what one historian called the "profitable mysteries," or as it would later be known, agricultural research.

One hundred years later, as I looked over the great volume of research work generated by the OSU Agricultural Experiment Station, I could appreciate not only the who and what, but the why of all this wonderful work. However, I also recognized a problem.

A hundred years is a long time-enough for a lot of people to do a lot of things and cause a lot of change. With so much good work and so many excellent people to choose from, how could I settle on a mere 10 contributions?

It was like trying to dip a thimble full of accomplishments from a sea of important work. After a lot of hand-wringing, rethinking and rewriting, I gritted my teeth and made my choices. I hope you enjoy the parade I've put together. Please remember that this a just a sampling of a great body of work. A lot of other projects could, and perhaps should, appear here. Also, the 10 topics are offered in no particular order.

1. Fisheries and wildlife research on stream and river ecosystems:

The OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife was created in 1935 with Roland Dimick as the department's first head and only faculty member. In his role as an Agricultural Experiment Station researcher, Dimick began conducting water pollution studies on the Willamette River, documenting fish kills in 1935 and 1936.

The research started by Dimick and continued by other scientists in the department came directly into play in the 1950s and 1960s when state government agencies conducted a massive cleanup of the Willamette River.

Young boy in 1914.

The simple joy of an afternoon at the county fair, circa 1915, is frozen on the face of a young Oregonian. Photo: Oregon State University Archives

In the late 1960s a "Stream Team" formed in the department. This multi-disciplinary group of OSU scientists has changed members over the years, but the team has continued on, conducting a broad variety of projects in stream ecosystem research.

In the process, the department has become known as an international leader in research on the ecology of streams and rivers. The body of work generated by the stream team has been central in the current debate over how to manage streams and rivers to the benefit of native fish populations.

The department is also a leader in research on "fish stress"-the physiological changes that occur when fish are subjected to environmental challenges. This work has been invaluable in developing management strategies for helping salmon survive in the Columbia River Basin.

2. Agricultural economics research on the value of natural resources:

Emery Castle, a former head of OSU's Department of Agricultural Economics, began this work at the university in 1955 studying ways to estimate the most profitable level of nitrogen fertilizer to use in producing wild hay on mountain meadows in eastern Oregon. During the study, Castle found it necessary to develop a process of estimating the value of public grazing land, which had not been done before.

It turned out that this concept of measuring the economic value of a natural resource, and the public use of the resource, established a new dimension in the making of natural resources management policy. It allowed public policy makers to weigh public values, expressed in economic terms, directly against the economic values of competing commercial uses for natural resources.

For example, in the early 1960s Castle and colleague William Brown conducted research on establishing the economic value of the Oregon salmon-steelhead sport fishery. The study was funded by the Oregon Game Commission, which wanted a common denominator for comparison of the value of the sport fishery with other commercial uses of fish and water resources.

Castle led research teams in the late 1960s and early 1970s that studied water quality in Yaquina Bay and the economic value of recreational uses of forest lands. This research, which Castle and other OSU economists helped pioneer, is now an important tool in the debate over whether to breach some dams on the Columbia River to improve the survivability of endangered salmon species.

3. Research on the effects of selenium in animal and human nutrition:

In 1953 OSU Agricultural Experiment Station researchers began investigating a deadly problem called white muscle disease that was killing off large numbers of calves and lambs in central Oregon.

Jim Oldfield, animal scientist; Herb Muth, veterinarian; and Lemar Remmert, agricultural chemist, found the disease was characterized by white lesions forming in leg, back and heart muscles of afflicted animals. The disease appeared in newborn calves and sheep, and many of them died of heart failure soon after birth.

Cow.

Above and below: OSU's research with white muscle disease in livestock identified selenium's importance in animal and human health, including that of pregnant mothers. Photo: Dave King

Women with babies.

Photo: Dave King

Further study revealed the disease was caused by lack of the trace element selenium in feeds given to pregnant cows and ewes. Following up this discovery, researchers noted that the suspect feeds-alfalfa and clover hays-came from areas in central Oregon where the soil was deficient in selenium.

This research led to the development of ways to add selenium to animal feeds, preventing livestock losses that saved ranchers up to $1 million annually.

Beyond these initial benefits, the study stirred much interest in selenium's effect on heart disease, and in the trace element's role in animal and human nutrition. Studies of selenium at OSU have continued since the 1950s with emphasis on selenium's effect on human health.

Over the last two decades Phil Whanger, an Agricultural Experiment Station researcher in the OSU Department of Environmental and Molecular Toxicology, has studied possible links between selenium deficient diets and cardiovascular disease in humans.

Whanger traveled to China to cooperate with Chinese scientists in recent studies of Keshan disease, a condition that affects mainly children between the ages of 2 and 18 and results in enlargement of the heart. Researchers discovered the disease was caused by selenium deficiency.

Researchers are also studying the possibility that selenium may play a preventive role with several types of cancers. Enrichment of certain vegetables with selenium for reduction of cancer is one approach now under study, according to Whanger.

4. Wheat variety breeding research:

Efforts to develop new wheat varieties began in the 1900s under the leadership of George Hyslop. By the 1960s the OSU wheat breeding program was focused on developing high-yielding wheat varieties resistant to stripe rust disease.

Men studying bales of hay.

Members of OSU's Farm Crops Department analyzing hay in 1927. From the beginning, research challenges included identifying crops that would grow in the state and pinpointing more effective farming techniques. Photo: Oregon State University Archives

Several wheat varieties have been developed and released by OSU Agricultural Experiment Station wheat breeders over the past several decades. Some, such as Stephens wheat, have been more successful than others.

Over the past 50 years Oregon growers have produced mostly soft white winter wheat for export. But to improve wheat exports, wheat breeders have studied the feasibility of growing other types of wheat-club varieties and hard white and red wheats-that have good world market potential.

A continuing challenge to wheat breeders is the broad range of plant diseases that keep popping up. Warren Kronstad, recently retired leader of the OSU's wheat breeding project, noted that in breeding research it's necessary to continually "pyramid, or breed more durable resistance, into new varieties."

OSU wheat breeders have been equal to the task. They've enjoyed strong support from producers, and the Oregon wheat industry has grown steadily since early in the century. In recent years the farm gate value of Oregon wheat has averaged just over $200 million annually.

5. Research on grass seed production:

Growers and researchers recognized early on that the Willamette Valley offered an excellent climate for producing grass seed crops. In the 1890 annual report of the Oregon Agricultural Experiment Station, E. Grimm, agriculturist, wrote, "The indications are that this [the Willamette Valley] is a most wonderful grass country." Today the Oregon grass seed industry has a farm gate value of $325 million.

Researchers began testing grass seed varieties in the late 1900s. This work was helped along in 1907 by the establishment of an Agronomy Department at Oregon Agricultural College (now OSU). A particularly important contribution to the seed industry was the establishment of the Oregon Seed Certification Program started by George Hyslop in 1916. Concentrating first on potato seed and grains, the program began the certification of grass seeds in 1924.

The process of seed certification consists of conducting germination tests on seed samples and evaluating samples of harvested seed for purity. Seed stocks that are found to contain weed seeds, particularly noxious weeds or other crop seeds, drop dramatically in value. Seed certification supports the value of seed crops by serving as a guarantee of seed purity.

Woman studying grain.

OSU seed physiologist Te May Ching studies a grain called triticale in 1983. Through the centruy, OSU research contributed to the quality and purity of seeds used in agriculture. Photo: Dave King

More recently, the Agricultural Experiment Station conducted extensive research in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s on alternatives to field burning, which had become a significant environmental problem, particularly in the Willamette Valley. Researchers, working closely with seed growers' associations, eventually identified some mechanical methods for replacing burning for several of the crop species.

"Baling the straw was a significant part of these mechanical processes, and research identified some export potential for baled grass seed straw," said Dave Chilcote, a retired Agricultural Experiment Station researcher who worked in OSU's Department of Crop and Soil Science. Agricultural engineers aided in developing specialized machines that provide more complete removal of seed crop stubble after baling the straw, he added.

6. Research in support of developing Coastal Oregon's surimi industry:

In the early 1990s leaders in the Oregon fisheries industry wanted to develop an on-shore Pacific whiting industry to compete with Seattle-based factory trawlers harvesting Pacific whiting off the Oregon Coast.

Oregon coast.

In the 1950s OSU agricultural economists began pioneering studies of the multiple values of natural resources such as the ocean, forests and public grasslands. Photo: Jim Larison

Pacific whiting is the most abundant fish off the West Coast. It is commonly processed into surimi, a refined fish paste that consists of washed and minced whiting fillets. Surimi is used in the production of a wide variety of fish-based products.

The problem was that whiting degrades quickly after removal from the sea. As a result, it was thought that a Pacific whiting fishery had to be sea-based, where factory ships could catch and process the fish in a very short period of time.

To find a way around the problem Michael Morrissey, director of the OSU Coastal Oregon Marine Experiment Station's Seafood Laboratory in Astoria, and Gil Sylvia, an economist at the OSU Coastal Marine Experiment Station in Newport, began studying Pacific whiting and developing quality guidelines. They continued building on research started by Dave Crawford, who was director of the Seafood Laboratory until his retirement in 1990. The project was funded by grants from the Oregon Department of Agriculture's Center for Applied Agricultural Research, the Oregon Trawl Commission and Oregon Sea Grant.

Morrissey and Sylvia led a team of researchers who found it was possible to deliver Pacific whiting to onshore processing plants quickly enough to avoid spoilage, provided that the processors and trawlers cooperated closely and observed carefully planned delivery schedules. Their work helped Oregon's coastal surimi industry develop into a $40 million per year enterprise over the past several years. Each year a three-day surimi processing school, directed by OSU food scientist Jae Park, is run at the Seafood Laboratory to help the industry.

"Oregon fishing boats brought in 5,000 metric tons of whiting in 1990," said Morrissey. "In each of the past two years, 70,000 to 80,000 metric tons of whiting have been harvested. The success of on-shore surimi processing has changed the face of the Oregon fishing industry."

Man and boy looking at pest trap.

OSU entomologist Pete Westigard, and a friend, check an orchard pest trap. Westigard helped develop an economically efficient, environmentally friendly farming approach called Integrated Pest Management. Photo taken in the late 1970s. Photo: Dave King

7. Integrated Pest Management (IPM) research:

IPM is one of the first examples of an ecosyste approach to managing crop production problems. OSU Agricultural Experiment Station researchers have been working in the IPM area since mid-century, though the work didn't always go by that name.

With IPM, researchers study the biology of target pests, which may be insects, plant diseases or weeds, to learn how they fit into the environment and how they behave. This knowledge helps the researchers identify a range of pest control strategies and techniques that will help limit pest-caused damage to agricultural crops.

The controls may be: biological-for example, the use of natural enemies to eliminate pest insects; chemical-the use of pesticides to eliminate pests; or cultural-the application of particular crop management practices such as crop rotations or removal of plant residue from fields following harvest to disrupt the buildup of pest populations.

An important part of IPM is monitoring pest levels to determine when they are high enough to cause economically significant damage in a particular crop.

OSU Agricultural Experiment Station researchers have contributed to the development of IPM programs for many Oregon crops over the years, including pears, apples, hazelnuts, mint, cherries, cranberries, alfalfa and vegetable crops.

These programs have helped growers respond to the food safety concerns of consumers while saving millions of dollars in production costs by limiting pest damage to crops. In addition, IPM programs help protect the environment from unnecessary applications of pesticides.

Of equal importance is the ecological balance that IPM programs are designed to preserve. IPM researchers strive to work with the forces of nature in a particular ecosystem rather than ignore them.

8. Cancer research with rainbow trout:

The OSU Marine/Freshwater Biomedical Sciences Center, one of five such centers in the United States, is the product of research begun in 1962.

Back then, Agricultural Experiment Station researcher Russell Sinnhuber was investigating the cause of a massive die-off of hatchery trout in the Northwest. During his investigation he discovered that the trout were excellent models for cancer research. He used rainbow trout in studies of aflatoxin, a cancer-causing substance found in molds that grow on improperly stored grains and nuts.

Sinnhuber's early work uncovered strong indications that liver cancer in humans can be caused by the consumption of aflatoxin-contaminated foods.

Researchers have continued the work started by Sinnhuber, using rainbow trout to study linkages between diet and cancer. George Bailey became director of the center in 1985 and has led research studies of cancer-inhibiting compounds found in foods typically consumed by humans.

One of these compounds is chlorophyllin, a derivative of chlorophyll, which is the common green pigment in plants. Chlorophyllin is now in clinical trials in China where the compound is being evaluated for its effectiveness in reducing the risk of liver cancer.

In other work, the center contributed to studies of the effects of pollution on fish health in the Willamette River. In 1990 the center also conducted studies on neurotoxins, substances that damage the nervous system. One substance under investigation is sarin, a nerve gas linked to health problems of Gulf War veterans.

"Most recently center researchers used the low cost advantage of the trout model to complete the largest cancer experiment ever conducted," said Bailey. "This study will provide the Environmental Protection Agency with improved models for estimating human cancer risk from exposure to low doses of chemicals that cause cancer by directly damaging DNA," he said.

Herd of cattle.

Establishing an OSU branch experiment station in Harney County in 1911 set the stage for many decades of contributions to the state's rangelands. The photo is of a cattle drive in Grant County in 1948. Photo: Oregon State University Archives

9. Range management research:

Work in this area began early in the 20th century with the establishment of an experiment station in Harney County in 1911. The introduction of beef cattle in eastern Oregon in the 1860s, and extensive homesteading, particularly in Harney County after the turn of the century, caused changes on Oregon rangelands that allowed sagebrush to crowd out native grasses in many areas. As a result, range improvement for grazing was an early research emphasis.

In 1950 Agricultural Experiment Station researchers started a range ecology project in eastern Oregon that eventually became a tri-state project with Washington and Idaho. Over the next decade scientists worked to understand all the factors, including climate cycles, soil properties and the health of range watersheds, that affect the increase and decline of various types of desirable and undesirable plants growing on rangelands.

In 1951, range researcher E.R. Jackman began studies on how to improve and increase range grasses. Since the 1960s range scientists have concentrated on learning how range ecosystems work with the eventual goal of finding ways to manage rangeland so it can support livestock grazing as well as healthy wildlife and native plant populations.

As a result of extensive studies on the function of range watersheds during the latter half of the century, the OSU Department of Rangeland Resources has become a national leader in watershed management research. This work has particularly helped with the issue of stream health and how it affects the survival of salmon runs in the Pacific Northwest.

10 Vegetable variety breeding research:

The Agricultural Experiment Station's vegetable crop breeding program has worked closely with Oregon's multi-million dollar vegetable processing industry over the years to develop new vegetable varieties adapted to Oregon's climate.

Following World War II the program got rolling under the leadership of W.A. Frazier, who began work on developing bush bean varieties. He also started developing tomato varieties resistant to disease and fruit cracking and adapted to cool summer weather.

Hillsboro parade in 1946.

A 1946 parade through Hillsboro of children in the VFV (Victory Farm Volunteers) program that helped get the country through World War II. Photo: Oregon State University Archives

In the 1960s, Frazier and horticulture colleagues Harry Mack and Jim Baggett focused on breeding a high-yielding, high-quality bush bean that could be harvested more easily than pole beans. Eventually, in 1982, the bush bean variety "Oregon 91" was released and became a favorite with commercial processors.

The three decades it took to produce Oregon 91 highlights the patience and determination required in vegetable breeding research. Breeders begin the long journey to creating a new variety by cross-breeding parent varieties that possess desirable characteristics such as disease resistance or cold hardiness. The hybrid plant selections produced from the cross are grown in the field and assessed. This process is repeated annually over a period of up to 12 years. New varieties then are tested in the field another 4 to 6 years to ensure that they consistently express the desired characteristics.

Baggett took over leadership of OSU's vegetable breeding program after Frazier retired. Now retired himself, Baggett developed dozens of new vegetable varieties over the past four decades. They include the aforementioned "Oregon 91," the tomato varieties "Oregon Spring" and "Santiam," the cherry tomato variety "Gold Nugget," the squash varieties "Sugar Loaf" and "Honey Boat," the pea varieties "Oregon Trail" and "Oregon Pioneer," and the lettuce variety "Summertime."

***

All of these examples of agricultural research, as well as the thousands of other projects that couldn't be included here, were undertaken to make Oregon agriculture more efficient, and ultimately to improve the lives of Oregonians.

And the parade goes on. The scientists who will be Agricultural Experiment Station researchers over the next hundred years are in school now or will be born over the next few decades. They will inherit the challenge of adapting new scientific technologies to the practical needs of Oregonians as the country cautiously embraces a future full of risks and opportunities. They will, I predict, take Agricultural Experiment Station research in daring new directions as they explore "profitable mysteries" of science in the 21st century.

Did you know?

Man with dog.

OSU entomologist Robert Goulding with the plastic flea collar he invented (1971).

Gloved hand holding cherry.

A maraschino cherry.

Men looking at objects on screen.

Ernest H. "Prof." Weigand, left, who in 1925 became the father of the modern maraschino cherry.

Published in: People