Oregon’s Agricultural Experiment Station
On February 25, 1889, Oregon Governor Sylvester Pennoyer signed legislation that established an Agricultural Experiment Station (AES) at Oregon Agricultural College (later called Oregon State University). The Hatch Act provided $15,000 a year in federal funds to support the Experiment Station, which increased the budget for the entire state college by 50 percent.
From the beginning, sharing research-based information with the public was a top priority for the station. Within the first 10 years, scientists published 58 bulletins to help farmers and others solve problems. Among the station’s first publications was a comprehensive report on growing prunes, which it called “the most important orchard industry in Oregon.” Other reports explored the possibility of a commercial mulberry industry and examined research on growing flax and hemp. The need to communicate was established; notes from an early Station meeting included a debate over the merits of buying a typewriter.
Researchers engage with communities through farmers’ institutes
The success of early AES researchers led to an inundation of requests for more information and consultation. By the 1890s, AES researchers were meeting regularly with farmers and growers throughout western Oregon at regional farmers’ institutes. According to AES records, a typical series of institutes in 1897 in Ashland and Medford “was occupied with a talk on Insect-Pests of the Apple, Pear, and Peach illustrated by steriopticon.”
Farmers’ institutes proved to be an efficient way to reach people where they lived and worked with demonstrations in food safety, farm economics, and agricultural innovations. Soon, researchers were taking these workshops on the road in specially outfitted railcars to reach communities all along the state’s expanding system of railways. Such travelling demonstrations, full of livestock, poultry, and the latest farm machinery, attracted large crowds of curious townspeople at each whistlestop and at demonstrations at the State Fair, grange hall meetings, and elementary schools.
Sustaining the gold standard of Northwest wheat
Wheat came to Oregon with the first settlers over the Oregon Trail; and before statehood, wheat was recognized as legal tender, along with silver and gold.
Developing the very best varieties of wheat for the region has been the work of the Experiment Station for more than a century. AES wheat breeders, beginning with agronomist George Hyslop, developed many of the grain varieties that have defined the wheat industry in the Pacific Northwest, including Stephens, a soft white wheat variety still commercially important more than 30 years after it was released.
A continuing challenge is the broad range of plant diseases that keep popping up. Warren Kronstad, OSU’s leading wheat breeder during the mid-20th century, noted that it’s necessary to continually “pyramid,” or breed more durable resistance, into new varieties. After more than a century, AES wheat breeders continue to develop new grains for new markets, adding millions of dollars a year to the regional economy.
Planting and protecting the U.S. hazelnut industry
In 1906, near the confluence of the McKenzie and Willamette rivers, George Dorris planted five acres of hazelnut trees, the first in the state. With that orchard, Dorris planted the state’s hazelnut industry. Today, Oregon produces 99 percent of the nation’s hazelnuts. But back in the 1980s, the future of Oregon’s hazelnuts looked bleak. A fungal disease called eastern filbert blight began wiping out orchards and threatening the entire industry.
Searching for a remedy, AES tree nut researchers set to work crossbreeding tree varieties for resistance to the disease. Breeding new tree varieties takes years, patience, and perseverance. Growers helped fund the research with more than $2 million through the Oregon Hazelnut Commission. The work paid off. All new varieties of hazelnuts that OSU has released since 2005 have genes that are resistant to the blight. And Shawn Mehlenbacher, head of OSU’s hazelnut breeding program, continues to develop new varieties with an even broader base of disease resistance.
The Experiment Station branches out across the state
The new century brought dawning realization that the Agricultural Experiment Station needed to address more than the concerns of growers in western Oregon. East of the Cascade Mountains was a high, dry landscape unsuited to the kind of agriculture that flourished in the Willamette Valley. In 1901, AES established its first branch experiment station at Union in northeast Oregon.
The Weekly Eastern Oregon Republican newspaper described the new station and its serendipitous location “on the tract of 620 acres of land that was purchased by the state for a branch insane asylum. Failing to secure the branch insane asylum it was turned over to the state … to be used as a branch experiment station.”
However, the Union branch station was built on a flood plain. For the first 20 years, much of the work centered on figuring out how to drain the land so it could be used for farming. Then followed research to improve production of cattle, sheep, swine, and draft horses with better forages and more effective methods to drain the sometimes soggy valleys of eastern Oregon.
Seed Lab takes root with standards of purity
In the 1890 AES annual report, agriculturist E. Grimm wrote, “The indications are that this [Willamette Valley] is a most wonderful grass country.” Researchers soon began testing grass seed varieties. Agronomist George Hyslop saw the need to certify the purity and germination rates of seeds and ensure that the lot was free of weed seeds. And he foresaw an industry that would take advantage of Oregon’s perfect climate for growing and curing the seeds of all kinds of grains, grasses, and vegetables. Today, Oregon produces many specialty seeds, the lion’s share of the nation’s clover and radish seed, and has become the grass seed capital of the world.
Hyslop’s seed lab started with a crank-operated divider, a screw-drive blower, and a few water-cooled germinators. Seed certification involved germination tests and evaluating samples of harvested seed for any impurities. Today, the OSU Seed Laboratory provides these services and more to seed industries around the world and is accredited by the International Seed Testing Association.
Kerr expands agricultural sciences research, education, and extension
Both Oregon Agricultural College and the Agricultural Experiment Station grew considerably under William Jasper Kerr’s dual role as Station director (1907) and college president (1907–1932). He expanded the number of academic departments, largely funded by the Experiment Station, including establishing the nation’s first horticultural products program in 1919 (which later became Food Science and Technology).
Kerr and others realized that the success of the Experiment Station would require more outreach to farming communities and families. The Station had already established the first link with farmers’ institutes and demonstration trains. Kerr supported this growing program of statewide, off-campus education. In 1911, the Oregon Extension Service was established, and the first county-based Extension agents began work in Marion and Wallowa counties. Today there are OSU Extension programs in every county in the state.
Withycombe introduces modern crop rotation to Oregon farms
As a farmboy in Devonshire, England, James Withycombe was enchanted by stories of the Willamette Valley. At 17, he convinced his family to move with him to a farm near Hillsboro; at 21, he bought himself a nearby ramshackle, 100-acre wheat farm. Instead of following the established path of a one-crop farm, Withycombe developed a diversified cropping system that eventually grew to 256 acres and one of the most prosperous farms in the region.
A gifted livestock breeder, Withycombe became the state veterinarian and traveled throughout Oregon, often by horse-and-buggy. He developed an interest in the agricultural possibilities for the state, and in 1908 he became director of the Agricultural Experiment Station. He preached the importance of soil fertility and recommended earlier plowing of summer fallow and rotations of nitrogen-rich crops in a cycle with wheat. Following Withycombe’s advice, Oregon wheat growers more than doubled their production and allowed for the conservation of soil.
In 1914, James Withycombe resigned as Station Director to become governor of Oregon. Three years later, the U.S. entered World War I, and Oregon Agricultural College became the center of military life for the entire state of Oregon.
Lady MacDuff breaks the egg record
In 1916, as the nation prepared to join a World War, AES poultry scientists celebrated history when a hen named Lady MacDuff laid a record-breaking 303 eggs in one year. The news immediately filled telegraph wires. A full-page story was printed in 24 major Sunday newspapers across the U.S. and Canada and translated into even longer articles in France, Germany, and Scandinavia.
Poultry science has continued to make headlines throughout the century, most recently with work by Gita Cherian, whose research has shown that omega-3 fatty acids give chicks a head start, increasing survival and a better bottom line for farmers. In addition, her research suggests that feeding hens conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) enriches eggs and can increase human antioxidant activity, helping people rid the body of cholesterol and fats.
Maud Wilson improves the lives and work of rural homemakers
The Purnell Act of 1925 provided federal money to state Agricultural Experiment Stations for research on agriculture and related economic and sociological factors. With those funds, AES director James Jardine hired Maud Wilson to conduct an intensive study of living standards in Oregon farm homes, a study that began Wilson’s career developing standards of health, safety, and modernization for rural homes throughout the U.S.
Wilson was said to have an admirable background for this research, having boarded in farm homes as a teacher in rural Nebraska. Later, she led Extension work with farm women in Nebraska and Washington. Her first research in Oregon was to document time spent on daily tasks, the drudgery of a farm woman’s work. In the 1920s in Oregon, very few rural kitchens had plumbing, electricity, or any standard for workspace and storage. Washing clothes, preparing meals, butchering, canning, and babysitting were all done in a small space of often haphazardly arranged tables, chairs, and barrels. Wilson’s work led to standards for working-surface heights and other ergonomic, sanitary, and efficiency improvements of rural home design.
Apples, pears, and prunes go from backyard to big business
The 1920s were a time of experimentation with new crops and new production methods. Land that had first been plowed only a few generations earlier for wheat, oats, and barley was now growing specialty crops, such as hops for beer, flax for linen, hemp for rope, and grapes for wine. Prunes were a big crop, with thousands of acres of hillside lands planted into orchards. As AES researchers improved methods of growing, drying, and packaging prunes, investors flooded the world market with more prunes than could be consumed.
Research turned to other tree fruits with the establishment of two new branch stations to support the apple industry in Hood River and the pear industry in Medford. In particular, growers asked the Station to address problems of large-scale, long-term storage of apples and pears. Researchers studied postharvest diseases before and after packing, and recommended that packers sanitize the water system and apply fungicides at packing. Today, apples and pears are available year round, thanks to methods developed to control postharvest decay beginning in the orchard and continuing until the fruits are sold.
Food processing begins with a cherry on top
Not a pick-from-the-tree variety, the maraschino cherry was originally created from marasca, a small black cherry that grew wild on the coast of present-day Croatia. To preserve them, the ancients pickled the cherries in seawater, then marinated them in a liqueur made from the marasca’s juice and pits. A taste for the marinated marascas soon drifted beyond the Croatian shores, and variations on the original recipe flourished. In the early 1900s, maraschino cherries were decorating cocktails and topping off ice-cream sundaes. But they were still made with European cherries, because it was said that American cherries were just too soft.
In the 1920s, Ernest Wiegand, a food scientist at Oregon Agricultural College, perfected a new maraschino cherry made from Oregon’s Royal Anne cherries. The secret was in the brine. The Croatians had used seawater; Weigand added a dash of calcium salts to firm the cherries and a dash of almond extract to simulate the taste of marasca pits.
Processing maraschino cherries became a big industry in Oregon during the mid-20th century. The nation’s two biggest maraschino manufacturers are still here in Oregon. And food-processing technology at Oregon State is still adding value to regional fruits, vegetables, and grains.
Fine Oregon wine is older than you think
Although the Oregon wine industry came into its own much later, Oregon wines have been garnering notice for more than a century. Records of annual wine grape production go back to at least 1899, when the state produced 2,694 tons. A Forest Grove wine won a silver medal at the 1904 St. Louis Exhibition. And in 1939, Oregon Agricultural College established an Enology Lab, just six years after the end of Prohibition, its function connected to the state’s Liquor Control Commission.
According to those records, wine grape production remained fairly constant both before and after Prohibition, then took a strong dive following World War II, as the California wine industry began to skyrocket. In 1969, Oregon growers harvested a mere 289 tons of grapes, about a 10th of the production from a generation earlier. However, the grape varieties were changing. And tastes changed, too.
In the 1970s, the Experiment Station began testing European wine grape varieties at Aurora, Medford, and Corvallis, “to seek solutions to specific problems of an industry that is new to the Pacific Northwest: a wine and wine grape industry based upon selected European vinifera varieties.” The rest is history.
Fish kills on the Willamette begin long-term aquatic research
In 1935, the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife was established with Roland Dimick as its only faculty member and researcher. Immediately, Dimick began conducting water pollution studies on the Willamette River, documenting significant fish kills in 1935 and 1936. In 1939, Gov. Charles Sprague requested a study of native oysters in Yaquina Bay. For this purpose, the Experiment Station built a small laboratory near the mouth of the estuary, the forerunner of the Hatfield Marine Science Center.
Water pollution research by Dimick and other AES scientists played a role in the 1950s and 1960s when state government agencies began a massive cleanup of the Willamette River. Much of this research coalesced into a multi-disciplinary “Stream Team” in the 1960s, whose work was central in the debate over how to manage streams to benefit native fish and in developing strategies for salmon survival in the Columbia River Basin.
Hard times are eased by the new Agricultural Research Foundation
With the Depression came a shortage of funding for agricultural research. Seeing a need for continued research and development in food, agriculture, and natural resources, in 1934 a coalition of industry leaders contributed $1,000 to create the Agricultural Research Foundation. The purpose was to encourage and promote scientific experimentation in all branches of agriculture and related fields for the benefit of the agricultural industry.
The foundation continues today as a nonprofit corporation that collaborates closely with Oregon’s diverse agricultural industries to support research projects conducted by scientists associated with the Agricultural Experiment Station. Each year, the foundation awards seed money to the College of Agricultural Sciences through its Competitive Grant program. For the 2012–2013 fiscal year, the Foundation’s General Fund awarded $398,790 to initiate 33 new projects.
Extension leads war effort
During the Great Depression, the Experiment Station expanded its role in community action. Federal emergency relief programs needed local administration, and few knew local communities better than the local agricultural Extension agents who lived and worked there.
During World War II, Oregon State College (the forerunner of OSU) commissioned more cadets than any other non-military institution in the nation. And Extension took responsibility for federal domestic war projects, organizing the Neighborhood Leader Plan to reach rural families with information on programs to control inflation, conserve wartime resources, and boost food production with Victory Gardens. Extension agents were leaders for the Emergency Farm Labor Service that organized temporary workforces of women and children and helped recruit braceros to work Oregon farms. After the war, agricultural Extension agents helped establish veteran agricultural advisory boards in every county and supported agricultural enterprises for Japanese-Americans released from internment.
Little-known flax facts
In 1941, Henry Ford created a car made almost entirely from plants. The car’s body was a mix of flax, straw, soybeans, and resins; its tires were goldenrod latex; its fuel was vegetable oil. The car was stylish and lightweight and the flax-based body was so strong that when Ford swung at it with an ax, the ax bounced off.
Ford hoped his bio-based car would help drive the nation out of a 20-year economic depression that had forced so many American farmers off the land. But before the flax car could go into production, the war was over and petrochemicals were transforming American industry.
Up until the 1950s, fields of blue-flowered flax flourished in the Willamette Valley. AES research developed new varieties, with longer fibers for linen fabrics and oily seeds for producing linseed oil and linoleum. Following the war, to stimulate new agriculture-based industries, various agencies supported new research on flax production and use. AES researchers worked with colleagues in the Department of Clothing, Textiles, and Related Arts to design and test fabrics made with Oregon linen, finding it compared favorably with imported yarns and fabrics. However, the Oregon linen industry could not compete with new, low-cost, synthetic fibers made from petrochemicals of the postwar economy.
Collaboration creates Marion, the berry delicious
In western Oregon, in late August, it’s hard to believe that there’s anything better than the taste of wild blackberries. But, there is. Working through the postwar years, George Waldo, a berry breeder with the U.S. Department of Agriculture working with Agricultural Experiment Station horticulturists, introduced a superior blackberry and named it after Marion County, where the berry had been extensively tested.
The marionberry is a magic blend of Oregon’s native blackberry, Rubus ursinus, with some R. armeniacus (the weedy Himalaya introduced from Europe in the late 1800s), and a bit of red raspberry. It grows on long trailing vines with fruit that is considered to be tastier and juicier than other blackberries.
A trace element has a major impact on animal and human health
In 1953, AES researchers began investigating a deadly problem called white muscle disease that was killing off large numbers of calves and lambs in central Oregon. A trio of AES researchers—Jim Oldfield, animal scientist; Herb Muth, veterinarian; and Lemar Remmert, agricultural chemist—found the disease was caused by lack of selenium in the feeds given to pregnant cows and ewes. They noted that the suspect alfalfa and clover hays came from areas in central Oregon where the soil was deficient in selenium. This research led to ways to add the trace element 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. Phil Whanger, an AES toxicologist, studied possible links between selenium-deficient diets and cardiovascular disease in humans and the possibility that selenium may play a preventive role with several types of cancers.
Telling the story of food and agriculture in a whole new way
When Congress first established the Agricultural Experiment Station as part of a national network, the expectation was that research discoveries would be shared with the public. Since the beginning, researchers published annual reports and bulletins with specific information on particular crops or industries.
But in 1953, Oregon had a better idea. Station director Earl Price asked OSU alum Bob Mason to produce its annual report in a more popular, readable style as a quarterly magazine written for the general public.
In the first issue of Oregon’s Agricultural Progress in the fall of 1953, Mason covered broodiness in chickens, feeding cattle over winter, and how to freeze chocolate cake (baked and unbaked). Each new issue of the magazine conveyed the latest findings of professors hired to teach OSU students, conduct research, and work with Extension agents around the state. Along the way, Oregon’s Agricultural Progress has become one of the most highly awarded research magazines in the nation.
Making a healthier home on the range
Although the Oregon Trail led to the Willamette Valley, by the 1860s homesteaders were beginning to settle in the eastern Oregon rangelands, and with them came beef cattle. By the turn of the 20th century, native rangeland grasses were beginning to lose ground to shrubs and weeds. To address the problem, AES established an experiment station in Harney County in 1911, with work focused on improving forages.
The study got a real boost in 1951, when AES researcher E.R. Jackman began work to improve and increase range grasses. That project eventually became a tri-state venture with Washington and Idaho, with state and federal scientists working together to understand all the factors, including climate cycles, soil properties, and the health of range watersheds, that affect the rangelands. Since the 1960s, range scientists have concentrated on finding ways to manage rangeland so it can support livestock grazing as well as healthy wildlife and native plant populations.
Hatchery fish get a nutritional boost in pellet form
Aquaculture has fed millions of people for thousands of years. But in 1954, farmed fish got a boost with the development of Oregon Moist Pellets, a moist, nutrition-packed pellet that replaced dry hard grains and meat-based diets previously used in fish hatcheries.
Developed by AES researchers at the OSU Seafood Lab in Astoria, these pellets packed a full complement of raw-food nutrition in an easy-to-swallow pellet. “More complete food consumption is reflected in better conversion, which in turn reduces the cost necessary to produce a pound of fish,” according to a report by the Oregon Fish Commission in praise of the new technology. “Other advantages are elimination of food grinding and diet preparation in the hatchery and the inherent food loss encountered; labor reduction in food handling, feeding, and pond cleaning; less storage space required; decrease of water pollution; and the fish produced tend to be more uniform in size.”
Seeking the connections between diet and cancer
Discovering the connection between diet and cancer is a fish tale of international significance. In the 1960s, AES toxicologist Russell Sinnhuber determined that a potent chemical carcinogen, aflatoxin, caused liver cancer in hatchery-reared rainbow trout, in levels as low as 1 part per billion. He recognized that the trout’s extreme sensitivity to aflatoxin made it an excellent model for cancer research. In 1965, he established the lab that would eventually carry his name, and the Sinnhuber Aquatic Research Laboratory remains the only trout hatchery in the world devoted to cancer research.
Recently, the laboratory has added a zebrafish facility to conduct biomedical research on many diseases including cancer, fetal alcohol syndrome, and nicotine addiction. The tiny fish are transparent during development, mature rapidly, and share about 80 percent of their genes with humans. This allows scientists to run many tests in a short time on a huge number of subjects.
Building better vegetables
Oregon owes a lot to AES vegetable breeders. Over the years, the AES vegetable breeding program has worked closely with Oregon’s multi-million-dollar vegetable processing industry to develop new varieties specifically adapted to Oregon’s soils and climate. Following World War II, the program got rolling under the leadership of W.A. Frazier, who focused on developing improved varieties of bush beans for commercial harvest, eventually releasing Oregon 91, which became a favorite with Oregon’s commercial processors.
Jim Baggett took over leadership of OSU’s vegetable breeding program after Frazier retired and developed dozens of new vegetable varieties for Oregon growers and gardeners. Building on the Frazier-bred Willamette tomato, Baggett introduced several more tomato varieties, including Oregon Spring, Santiam, and the cherry tomato Gold Nugget. Summer would not be the same without Baggett’s Sugar Loaf and Honey Boat squash varieties and his Oregon Pioneer peas.
An entomologist becomes dog’s best friend
Because of Robert Goulding, 60 million dogs and cats are free from fleas and ticks. Goulding, an OSU entomologist, studied time-release pesticides that eventually led to the introduction of the flea collar in 1964.
Working at first with cattle, Goulding developed time-release, resin-based pesticides that could be mounted on posts where cattle could rub, giving themselves a dose of insecticide. His work led to the pet flea collar and other products that release chemicals at a fixed rate, as well as safe methods to dispose of pesticides and other toxic chemicals.
Strengthening the West Coast oyster industry
Since 1966, OSU’s Molluscan Broodstock Program has helped develop the Pacific oyster industry with careful selections and DNA fingerprinting to ensure pedigrees and avoid genetic contamination. As a result of this work, yields of top-performing oyster families are on average 77 percent greater than the yields of progeny from nonselected industry broodstock.
More recently, the chemistry of the ocean was found to be threatening the oyster industry. Scientists suspected that water rising from deep in the Pacific Ocean and pumped into seaside hatcheries may have become corrosive enough to dissolve the shells and reduce survival of larval oysters.
“These seawater conditions have led to dire economic consequences for oyster hatchery operators that produce about three-quarters of all larvae used by West Coast oyster farms,” said Chris Langdon, program director. In response, Langdon is helping to restore seed production in West Coast oyster hatcheries by developing selected broodstock that can better survive these seawater conditions and by developing ways to improve the quality of ocean water that is pumped into hatcheries.
Helping the grass seed industry douse the flames of a burning conflict
Oregon is the world’s number-one producer of cool-season forage and turf grasses. Grass seed growers used to burn the stubble left after harvest to remove straw and kill disease organisms. But back in 1969, on a hot August afternoon, smoke from field burning resulted in a 12-car collision on Interstate 5 and the death of a pedestrian. Field burning became an issue of public safety as well as public health.
Since then, AES and Extension agronomists have worked closely with the industry to develop grass seed varieties and field management techniques that do not require burning. The result has been a 10-fold reduction in acres burned. Dave Nelson of the Oregon Seed Council called it “one of the greatest political redirections of agriculture in the U.S.”
Three cheers for hops research
It took German beer crafters 600 years to combine barley, hops, yeast, and water into the classic definition of modern beer. But Oregon bubbled to the top of the microbrewing industry in one generation.
Throughout most of the first half of the 20th century, Oregon was the nation’s largest producer of hops, the pine cone-shape flowers that give beer its flavor and aroma. By the early 1950s, AES researchers developed the now classic hop varieties, Willamette and Cascade, that became industry standards during the 1970s and ’80s.
Today, 1,500 hop vines spiral skyward where AES hops breeder Shaun Townsend works to create varieties that will wow microbrewers who are in search of unique-smelling hops beyond the classic citrus. Out of 4,000 seedlings in the greenhouse each year, Townsend will end up with less than five that would interest this skyrocketing market. But the market is going to have to wait. OSU’s hops breeding program started in 2010, and it’ll take more than a decade of testing before one of its hops ends up in a pint glass.
AES research makes sure that Oregon’s got milk
Milk is Oregon’s official state beverage and its fourth-largest agricultural commodity. However, when dairy researcher Floyd Bodyfelt joined the AES faculty in 1964, milk came from the dairies in metal cans, and sanitation was a concern. He set to improving the quality of Oregon dairy products with the mantra “the final product is only as good as the raw materials going into it.”
Over the decades, Bodyfelt worked to improve the shelf life and flavor stability of dairy products; perfected ice cream quality; and refined lactic cultures for cheese manufacture, which helped save the Tillamook-centered cheese industry more than $1 million per year.
Work continues in dairy science, from new research on animal care to new markets for artisan cheese. In 2012, OSU unveiled its Beaver Classic cheese, an alpine-style product made by Oregon State students using milk from the university’s dairy herd.
Farmers re-establish a market of their own
“Buy local” is an old idea, and a new idea. But a trend toward national food distribution that began in the 1960s separated most small producers from institutional purchasers. There were very few grocery stores willing to buy directly from local farmers. Oregon farmers’ markets started in the 1970s, organized largely by farmers looking for a place to sell their produce.
In 1978, the federal Farmer-to-Consumer Direct Marketing Act directed the Extension Service to become involved in farm-direct marketing and to include the organization of farmers’ markets. Two farmers’ markets opened that year in Oregon, at Albany and Newport. More followed.
“We call this ‘civic agriculture,’ using food production and marketing to develop economic and social relationships within a community,” said Larry Lev, an OSU Extension marketing specialist. By connecting consumers with farmers and developing best-practices guidelines, Lev and his colleagues have helped grow the number of markets statewide to over 100 in one generation.
Marine Mammal Institute connects the giants of the ocean
The 1970s saw a generation of new environmental legislation and the beginnings of what would become a world-class center for studying whales and other marine mammals. In creating the OSU Marine Mammal Institute, marine biologist Bruce Mate brought together top researchers from around the globe to study the giants of the ocean and how they interact with their environment and the human activities affecting them.
Over decades, their work has discovered the importance of biological “hotspots” to the survival of most of these sea creatures. Researchers used satellite-monitored radio tags to determine the distribution and critical habitats of endangered whales, and they explored the genome of whales and dolphins to understand the past and conserve the future.
Building on this world-class research base, Scott Baker, associate director of the institute, is now investigating the illegal sale of meat from protected whales in Asian shops and restaurants. He uses DNA profiling to identify whale meat down to the species, subpopulation, and even the individual whale, producing convincing evidence that some whale meat in the marketplace originated from illegal or unregulated sources.
OSU creates new barley varieties for food, beer, and forage
Genomic research opened doors for AES plant breeders. Between 1993 and 2012, AES barley breeders released 12 new varieties of barley to help farmers diversify their crops and cash in on a growing interest in microbrews and whole-grain diets. Researchers worked to identify genes that allow barley to withstand low temperatures, resist disease, and survive with little water and nitrogen. They also looked for genes responsible for malting quality, nutritional properties, and flowering time.
Additionally, OSU is testing how its new cultivars hold up in the kitchen by developing new products with them like tortillas, pretzels, baguettes, pita breads, sourdoughs, and focaccia.
The little fish that grew a new industry
When the lucrative Pacific salmon industry went belly-up in the late 1970s, West Coast fishermen blamed foreign fleets so close to shore. The U.S. Senate responded by claiming sovereign territory to 200 miles offshore, and Oregon fishermen saw an opportunity with the low-value whiting fish once targeted by foreign factory ships.
Developing a shore-based whiting industry for Oregon was the first project for the brand-new Coastal Oregon Marine Experiment Station when it opened in 1988. OSU research proved that good quality surimi and other products could be produced by on-shore processors. Substantial interest and capital investment followed. Fish packing plants that had been boarded up for a decade reopened as manufacturers of surimi. And the boney whitefish reviled by Oregon salmon fishermen got a marketing makeover and became the highest volume fishery in the state.
Today, OSU runs an international Surimi School each year, designed to improve the industry through research and teaching on chemistry, seafood quality, safety, and product development.
New potatoes come from a tri-state collaboration
Everyone loves potatoes; they are the third-most-consumed food crop in the world after rice and wheat. In 1984, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recognized the importance of the Pacific Northwest in the production and processing of potatoes and supported the establishment of a regional potato research breeding program with OSU and universities in Idaho and Washington.
So far, the tri-state program has released more than 30 new varieties of spuds that resist pests and diseases, have higher yields, are more nutritious, and handle processing better. Nearly all potato varieties released by the tri-state program since 2005 require 10 to 50 percent less nitrogen fertilizer to produce yields similar to Russet Burbank. Among the world’s russets, chippers, red skins, long whites, and fingerlings, tri-state’s Umatilla Russet is one of only four potato varieties served by the world’s largest fast food chain of restaurants
Innovations reduce water and fertilizer, yet produce the very largest onions
Jumbo. Colossal. Super colossal. The superlatives used to rate Treasure Valley onions suggest they could take over the world. And in a way, they have. Many of the onions sold in U.S. grocery stores during fall and winter come from this valley at the border of Oregon and Idaho.
After 30 years of research, scientists at OSU’s Malheur Agricultural Experiment Station have helped Treasure Valley onion producers triple their acreage in onions and reduce water use, pesticides, fertilizer, and runoff. And, in the process, the onions got bigger. Clint Shock, the station superintendent, and colleagues replaced old furrow systems with drip irrigation that applied moisture and fertilizer slowly to the root zone and kept topsoil in place and groundwater protected. They developed sensors to initiate irrigation only when soil moisture dropped below a particular level.
As a result, onions grew large and well-centered, perfect for making onion rings. And, Shock said, residues of nitrate and the herbicide DCPA are decreasing in the valley, despite the three-fold increase in onion production.
Communities find common ground where conflicts once flared
Conflicts over land use are especially divisive in western states such as Oregon, where more than half the land is in public ownership. In the early 1990s, when the northern spotted owl and coastal salmon had been listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, farmers, ranchers, and timber companies found themselves glaring through an ideological barbed-wire fence as environmentalists glared back.
AES and Extension faculty served as conveners to help communities work through conflicts to find common ground. Their work demonstrated that voluntary, collective, local efforts could solve tough problems, even when tougher methods like regulations and lawsuits were apparently doing little good. The result has been the establishment of local watershed councils and community-based working groups where OSU faculty provide research-based information to neighbors and land managers in a forum of shared problem-solving.
Battling the modern threat of an ancient terror
Smallpox has plagued humanity for millennia, killing more people than all the world’s wars combined. During the mid-1960s, in the midst of the Cold War, the world launched an all-out assault against this global enemy; eradicating the disease was a triumph of modern science. Nations throughout the world began disposing of their stores of smallpox virus and vaccines until the last known stocks existed in only two places—at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta and at the Research Institute for Viral Preparations in Moscow.
“Smallpox has been eradicated. Or has it?” asked Dennis Hruby, an OSU microbiologist who worked to develop a new defense against smallpox. “No one has been vaccinated in the U.S. for almost 40 years,” said Hruby. “And most of the world’s supply of the vaccine has been destroyed. The government would like to have a drug ready to treat the disease if it were to show up.”
For 20 years, Hruby’s lab in OSU’s Department of Microbiology worked to learn how invading microbes infect cells and cause disease. In 2000, Hruby joined forces with SIGA Technologies as their chief scientific officer in a research and development partnership.
OSU scientists help Oregon’s vineyards and wineries stay competitive
Long before the movie “Sideways,” people knew about the Oregon mystique with Pinot noir. In 1979, an Oregon wine was rated the top Pinot noir at the Gault-Millau French Wine Olympiades, establishing Oregon as a region capable of producing top-quality wines. AES horticulturalists worked closely with French wine cultivation experts, importing the Dijon clones and many varieties for the first time into the United States. They isolated the first malolactic bacteria to grow at cold temperatures and low pHs; devised a lag growth phase crop estimation system that is now used universally; and created the first International Cool Climate Symposium for Viticulture and Enology in 1984.
The process of making wine is complex and OSU research continues to improve the process from field to market. Vineyard management was found to have an effect on phenolics, which affect how wine feels in the mouth, and on anthocyanins, which are pigments that produce a more intense red. Other studies examine how yeast impacts the aroma of Pinot noir.
DNA tracking helps fishermen avoid endangered salmon
During the last decades of the 20th century, large closures to commercial salmon fisheries jeopardized industry and community vitality. Such lengthy closures could be avoided if up-to-the-moment data were available to distinguish stocks at sea. Through the Collaborative Research on Oregon Ocean Salmon project, AES researchers used genetic fingerprints to determine locations of weak and healthy stocks. They found patterns suggesting that fish from certain rivers move in “pulses” through the ocean. This kind of real-time tracking has helped fisheries managers direct fishing toward robust populations of salmon and away from endangered stocks.
Extension and AES faculty worked with fishery managers to train Oregon and California fishermen in new data-collection methods, including first-ever catch-and-release methods in closed areas, to record the location of salmon at sea.
Food Innovation Center helps entrepreneurs cook up new ideas
With the new millennium, the Oregon Food Innovation Center opened as one of the nation’s first urban Agricultural Experiment Stations. In collaboration with the Oregon Department of Agriculture, research at the center focuses on practical solutions that will make the difference between profit and loss for Oregon farmers, food processors, food distributors and retailers.
For example, Northwest fruit growers have watched for years as they lost market share to foreign competition from apple and pear producers from such places as New Zealand and Europe. With help from OSU market analysts and agricultural economists, Northwest growers are regaining the marketing advantage they used to enjoy. And sensory testing at the Center attracts food producers from around the nation, where they can precisely test new products and recipes with targeted consumers.
OSU scientists learn how viruses invade plants and how plants fight back
Viral invaders are a plant’s phantom menace. Leaving characteristic fingerprints—mosaic mottling or ringspot stamps—viruses can inflict severe deformities on their plant victims. Groundbreaking research at OSU has revealed that plants fight back by muzzling the genetic code of the invading virus.
Research by James Carrington and others at OSU’s Center for Genome Research and Biocomputing helped crack open plant genomes to reveal a secret command center at work, masterminded by tiny forms of RNA molecules within the cell. Working with the plant equivalent of the lab rat—a mustard known as Arabidopsis—this research has not only accelerated the advances in plant research, but could help speed the discovery of potential disease therapies in humans as well.
“Gene silencing is the basis of the plant’s immune system against a virus,” said Carrington. “And, like immunization that we use in humans to protect against disease-causing viruses, we can use gene silencing to pre-program plants to resist viruses.” These and other discoveries related to small RNAs garnered the distinction of “scientific breakthrough of the year” by Science magazine in 2002.
The best ideas under the sun
In 2006, the U.S. Congress passed the Sun Grant Initiative, meant to enhance the nation’s energy security, promote environmental sustainability, and revitalize rural communities with new agriculture-based industries. The legislation named OSU as one of five centers of excellence to investigate ways to use sustainable agricultural products that are based on energy from the sun—instead of petroleum—for the direct production of fuels and many other consumer products.
Development of bio-based energy may make it possible to reduce the nation’s need for the fossil fuels that now serve these functions. Ultimately, the program should also help relieve shortages of electrical power and record high prices for gasoline and natural gas. And, finding new ways to use sustainable agricultural products should provide additional markets for farm families and rural communities across the nation.
Getting the bugs out of public schools
Mandated by a 2009 state law, the OSU School IPM Program was created to work with schools to improve pest management while reducing costs, workload, and pesticide use. Part of AES and OSU’s Integrated Plant Protection Center, the School IPM Program has developed best practices and provides training for Oregon’s public and private schools and community colleges to reduce their pesticide use. The plans use integrated pest management (IPM), which employs chemicals as a last resort and instead aims to eliminate the conditions that attract pests, some of which can trigger asthma—a condition that 10 percent of all Oregon children have.
Most pests have the ability to chew through plastic snack bags and paper cracker boxes; small ants can even find their way around a twist tie. Pest-proofing means reducing the amount of food, water, and shelter available to pests to discourage them from setting up shop. The OSU School IPM Program helps school staff develop the habit of year-round vigilance as part of an intentional, school-specific IPM program.
Cattle ranchers and environmentalists work together on the range
Oregon is home to 1.8 million head of cattle, many of which graze on sagebrush grassland. But some of that same land is also home to the greater sage-grouse, which was named as a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act in 2011. The bird occupies about half of its historical range in the U.S. and Canada because of degradation to its habitat. In Oregon, juniper trees, wildfires, unmanaged grazing, and aggressive weeds have disturbed its ecosystem.
In an effort to preclude an ESA listing, Station and Extension faculty worked with landowners to develop voluntary agreements to conserve the species’ out-of-balance habitat. As part of this, AES researchers developed inventory and monitoring guidelines for landowners, whose cattle stand to benefit from the rangeland improvements. Much of the science that will be used to develop conservation plans is from long-term studies conducted at the Eastern Oregon Agricultural Research Center.
OSU finds invasive species on Japanese dock on Oregon coast
When a 66-foot dock washed up on Oregon’s coast as debris from Japan’s 2011 tsunami, Oregon State University scientists inspected it for invasive species, which can cause ecological and economic damage. They identified more than 90 unique creatures, including barnacles, algae, and northern Pacific sea stars. At least 10 of these species are known to be invaders in other parts of the world.
However, AES researchers say that the danger from potentially harmful hitchhikers may not be known for years. Some of the invaders could reproduce and breed with similar local organisms, disrupting the native ecosystem. Research continues as vigilance is warranted. Expelling or managing an established invasive species nationally costs $6 billion for invasive fish and $122 million for aquatic weeds annually, which includes the economic impacts of commercial production losses and declining native species.
Fermentation suits the culture of the Pacific Northwest
Beer, wine, bread, and cheese. These are signature products of the Pacific Northwest, and signature areas of research, Extension, and teaching at OSU. Fermentation adds value to many of Oregon’s crops. For example, artisan cheese increases the value of a gallon of milk 10-fold; high-quality wine increases the value of Pinot noir grapes up to eight times; and craft beer increases the value of hops and barley as much as 30 times. In addition, distillation adds significant value to fruits and grains.
In 2013, the Oregon legislature provided $1.2 million to expand fermentation sciences at OSU by adding distillation sciences to the brew. OSU is the first university in the nation with a working research winery, brewery, and distillery, keeping pace with Oregon’s rapidly diversifying fermentation industries.