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Living history

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Living history

Not much has stayed the same since the 1930s. But plots of wheat in Pendleton have endured to do just that: never change. Not even a little.

As the Empire State Building welcomed its first visitors, across the country OSU researchers were busy planting agricultural experiments that continue uninterrupted to this day. Among the oldest farming trials in the country, these test plots offer OSU researchers a unique insight into how dryland farming—growing crops without irrigation—affects the land over the long haul. “Some of these plots are trapped in the 1930s and show us what happens when we farm how people did 85 years ago,” said Stephen Machado, lead scientist of OSU’s long-term experiments in Pendleton. “We’re fortunate to have inherited a treasure here. We’re still learning lessons and finding out new things every year.”

CBARC test plots

Aerial view of research plots at the CBARC research facility.

Dozens of test plots of wheat, barley, and peas are scattered around the sprawling experiment station. Each is managed with precise farming techniques. Some of the practices are antiquated—like tilling soil with a moldboard plow or burning crop stubble as residue management—yet OSU continues with the design and consistency of the original experiments. Other practices, like testing different applications of fertilizer, continue to be immediately relevant to farmers worldwide.

Altogether, the experiments have yielded decades of data showing the long-term environmental costs and benefits of farming. “We see which farming methods will be sustainable over time. The effects of what we do on the land sometimes take a while to manifest,” said Machado, an expert in dryland cropping agronomy. “Without long-term plots, it’s difficult to know what’s going to happen.” Researchers and farmers are able to apply lessons learned from these long-term trials. Since dryland agriculture using conventional tillage leaves land vulnerable to wind and water erosion that carry away nutrient-rich soil, OSU researchers have demonstrated the importance of no-till farming and its impact on soil organic matter accumulation and soil health.

Thanks to results from soil fertility trials, grain yields from the test plots have more than doubled since the 1930s. Also, scientists and growers around the world periodically contact OSU to learn about and use data from the Pendleton experiments, said Machado. “You can duplicate scientists and you can duplicate tractors, but you can’t duplicate these experiments without 85 years. That’s what makes them so unique.”

Published in: Ecosystems