Steve Petrie, superintendent of the Columbia Basin Agricultural Research Center at Pendleton. Photo: Lynn Ketchum
For someone who left Oregon State University 20 years ago, Steve Petrie sure carries a torch for the university.
"I graduated from OSU and I feel privileged to work here," Petrie said. "I think we do a great job of researching problems facing the agricultural community and then delivering sound information to our stakeholders. Heck, I’ve got Beaver plates on my car."
Petrie, superintendent of the Columbia Basin Agricultural Research Center in Pendleton, spent 13 years working for Unocal Agricultural Products in the Pacific Northwest and was in charge of all agricultural research and technical support activities when he left the company. He spent two years as sales and marketing manager for Martin Marietta Technologies in Ohio before returning to OSU in July of 2000.
"I took a pay hit to come back here to work," he said, "but I love it here and I thoroughly enjoy my work. I have always enjoyed working with farmers in production agriculture. When I was sales and marketing manager, I felt too far removed from the field."
Under his job description, Petrie spends half his time on research and half on administrative duties. In reality, he said, he spends 75 percent of his time on administrative duties.
"I enjoy that aspect of the job," he said. "It is rewarding to provide the leadership and management for the station that allows our scientists to do their research with as few roadblocks as possible." Still, he said, the highlight of his day is the time he spends in the field.
"I find farmers to be very creative and innovative people and their no-nonsense approach to solving problems is refreshing. They’ll challenge you," he added. "They’ll hold your feet to the fire, but they’re fair."
Another highlight, Petrie said, is the expansive field day that the center puts on in June of each year.
"To be a part of that process—to see everyone working together to get information out to growers—that’s a highlight," he said.
The experiment station at Pendleton employs scientists from OSU and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service. Petrie said the two groups have a great working relationship.
"Many of the OSU scientists here at CBARC have cooperative research projects with ARS scientists, and the farmers we serve really benefit from this collaborative work," he said.
Petrie has 15 field trials this year, at both Pendleton and Moro, but the work he is doing with barley breeder Pat Hayes stands out. Petrie’s research with Hayes is focused on developing agronomic management guidelines for what could become the only winter malting barley varieties grown in the United States.
Hayes took a winter malting variety with desirable malting characteristics, developed by a U.S. Department of Agriculture geneticist years ago, and crossed it with varieties containing high yield potential and disease resistance to develop several varieties now being tested in Pendleton and Moro. Because no other winter malting varieties have been tested, OSU researchers are "pretty much starting from scratch," Petrie said.
"We’re finding that we have some good-looking varieties and that we can manage nitrogen in a way to produce high yields and good malting quality," he said. Research to date has shown that best results in fertility management have come from split applications of nitrogen.
Petrie also is working on perfecting other management practices for the new varieties, including seeding rate, seeding date and weed control.
"We need to establish management practices that will enable growers to take the best advantage of these genetics," he said. "Our goal is that when we get to the end of this process, we will have a production guide that we can provide growers to go along with these varieties."
Petrie also is testing to see whether wheat and barley respond to chloride and zinc applications in the low and intermediate rainfall areas of eastern Oregon. "We have indications that these nutrients may be deficient and this research should determine if they truly are," he said.
Petrie said he has enjoyed the transition from the private to the public sector. The biggest frustration he faces is the ongoing drought in eastern Oregon.
"It’s frustrating knowing that growers are facing several years of below-normal rainfall, almost drought-like conditions, and that’s affecting their ability to make a living. It’s frustrating that we can’t do a lot to help them. We can’t provide rain."
No, he can’t provide rain. Still, the superintendent of the Columbia Basin Agricultural Research Center is showing that a little Beaver bravado may go a long way toward making the future better for barley and wheat growers.