The sun is starting to peek above the Pendleton horizon. Christina Hagerty, an OSU plant pathologist, takes her seat on the back of an orange plot drill, towed by a tractor. Recent rains softened the dark brown soil in wheat research plots at OSU’s Columbia Basin Agricultural Research Center, creating a welcome window for planting. It’s 10 degrees above freezing.
Hagerty blows on her hands and gives the thumbs up sign to Duncan Kroese, her research assistant. He guides the tractor through the field as she pours a bag of wheat kernels through a hopper. Like many farmers throughout the state, planting just after dawn allows Hagerty and Kroese to get more work done the rest of the day.
The bags of wheat kernels represent variety trials that Hagerty will monitor throughout the growing season. She sifts through the bags, reciting the row numbers. “We’ve checked these packets many times to make sure they’re in the right order,” she says.
OSU has conducted wheat research on these venerable plots for almost 90 years. “Some people think these fields are a national treasure,” Hagerty says. “I don’t disagree.”
“I have a question,” says the caller from Arkansas. It’s 8 a.m. in the National Pesticide Information Center, and OSU pesticide specialist April Strid is ready to take the call.
The caller says that an applicator for a pest control company was at her house recently and some of the spray drifted on to her garden. Strid asks several questions, taking copious notes. With as much information as possible in front of her, Strid offers advice on risk.
She notes that the garden’s root vegetables—potatoes and carrots—would not have had their edible parts sprayed directly, so eating them would pose a lower risk. But because of the nature of the chemical that was sprayed, the garden herbs pose a higher risk. She suggests that the caller could consider waiting a few days to consume the herbs after washing them, or choose not to eat them at all.
NPIC is a partnership between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and OSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences and is managed by the college’s Department of Environmental and Molecular Toxicology. “We provide scientific information for both the public and professionals,” says Amy Hallman, NPIC’s project coordinator. “We don’t tell people what to do; we explain risk and promote informed decision-making.”
Silvia Rondon and her team stand next to a 26-foot steel tower that looks like a TV antenna with four little cubes mounted at 4-foot intervals. The cubes are covered with a sticky flypaper-like material.
Rondon is a professor and Extension entomologist at Hermiston Agricultural Research and Extension Center, an expert in the insect pests that attack potatoes and other irrigated east-side crops. Although she’s fully adept at using high-tech research tools, this morning she’s testing this “flypaper on a flagpole” as a possible low-tech insect-monitoring tool.
She built two towers for $2,500 each. “We’re finding insects I didn’t expect to be flying 26 feet up,” Rondon says. “Thrips, for example—there’s no record in the literature about how high they can fly.” The sticky flypaper is also snagging a surprising number of click beetles—the adult phase of wireworms, which are a major pest in many east-side crops.
Knowing how high these pests can fly will help Rondon and her team figure out more precisely how far they can spread. Her low-tech towers promise to pay off in better strategies for anticipating and managing insect damage in eastern Oregon’s valuable crops.
A pickup truck pulls up to the door of the Hermiston center’s plant diagnostics laboratory. The driver emerges carrying a tray of zippered plastic bags loaded with samples of potato plants and soil. The lab manager, plant pathologist Robert Cating, greets the driver by name and takes her tray. She is one of about two dozen farmers and food processors across the inland agricultural regions of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho who regularly use the lab’s services.
“We do mostly potatoes here,” Cating says. Logical enough: potatoes are a big crop in the inland Northwest. What’s more, they are susceptible to several damaging viruses and bacterial diseases. The lab routinely examines insects such as potato psyllids to see if they’re carrying a virus. “I’ve had growers bring me a Mason jar full of psyllids and say, ‘I have a helicopter waiting to spray; can you test these and get back to me ASAP?’”
Cating and his technicians use state-of-the-art diagnostic techniques, including polymerase chain reaction, to fingerprint damaging pathogens with high accuracy. The Hermiston lab saves farmers money and—just as important—time. One test Cating developed can detect six common potato viruses in one pass. “Instead of taking weeks, we can test for all of them in one day.”
Cating thanks the client and invites her to come back tomorrow to learn the test results. “They seem to enjoy the interaction with us,” he says. “A lot of times they’ll drop in with a sample and say, ‘I don’t know if I should bother you about this.’ I always say, ‘Yes, please bother us! Don’t wait till it blows up in your face.’”
The University of Portland bell tower is striking 10 as Gail Langellotto pulls up to the curb in the Portland neighborhood of St. Johns. Carrying a clipboard and a baby food jar, Langellotto opens a gate and lets herself into a backyard garden in riotous bloom.
The homeowner is at work, but her cat recognizes Langellotto and greets her with a welcoming purr. Langellotto sets to work capturing and counting the bees and other pollinators buzzing through the profusion of flowers.
This is one of 24 gardens owned and tended by Portland-area Master Gardeners that Langellotto, an OSU Extension urban and community horticulturist, is using as study sites for her research. In this study, she is looking into how pollinating insects are faring in urban ornamental and vegetable gardens. Langellotto is also the statewide coordinator for Extension Master Gardeners, “so I have a good supply of volunteer sites,” she says with a smile.
In this first year of the three-year study, Langellotto wants to get a baseline idea of how many and what species of pollinators are active in the metro area. Years two and three, she anticipates, will reveal more precisely how urban gardens support pollinators year-round.
“We hypothesize that these gardens are a refuge for pollinators between the bloom season for wild plants—typically in the early spring—and later in the season, when agricultural crops begin to bloom,” she says. “If that’s the case, it suggests that urban gardens may play a more critical role than we realize in keeping Oregon’s pollinators healthy.”
At the Sinnhuber Aquatic Research Laboratory, a few miles east of Corvallis, postdoctoral researcher Cat Lu peers through a microscope slide at a skin of water teeming with a hundred tiny zebrafish embryos. She’s worked through her lunchtime, and her stomach is starting to growl.
The zebrafish on this slide have been exposed to a chemical mix called mITP, a flame retardant commonly added to polyurethane foam products. It’s suspected to cause heart problems in humans and is one of thousands of environmental chemicals screened yearly by the lab to determine their effects on human health.
“We expose the fish to the chemical at a range of concentrations, and then image the animals over time to see what happens with the developing heart,” says Robert Tanguay, molecular toxicologist and the lab’s director. Zebrafish are ideal for this sort of study, he says, because they grow from a single cell to an embryo with a beating heart in 28 hours. Their other great advantage is that their bodies are transparent.
Under the microscope, Lu is charting the changes in the tiny hearts from one sample to the next. She wants to capture the first point at which the chemical makes the heart grow incorrectly.
Zebrafish hearts are not human hearts, of course, but they develop similarly in many ways, Tanguay says. “We can use these observations pretty confidently to predict how the chemical might affect humans.”
At a vineyard near the Applegate River, Alexander Levin is showing a group of vineyard workers how to use a pressure chamber to measure whether a grapevine is experiencing water stress—that is, whether it’s thirsty.
Levin, a plant physiologist and viticulture professor at OSU’s Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center, finds a leaf in full sun and cuts it off the vine, leaving a long stem, or petiole. “The best time to test is during midday, when plants are most stressed for water,” Levin says. Quickly and carefully, he threads the petiole up through a hole in a jar lid, then screws the lid down so the leaf is contained in the jar. He gently turns a dial and opens a valve; the needle on the gauge begins to turn. “Watch the petiole closely,” he instructs. As the needle crosses the 12-bar mark, a droplet of water moistens the petiole’s cut surface and sparkles in the sunshine, a jewel-point of light.
He closes the valve. “Twelve bars. Moderate water stress,” says Levin. “For now, that’s fine.” A little thirst can be good for grapevines. Being strategically stingy with water stresses the plants in a good way, activating the “molecular machinery” that enhances the tannin, color, and flavor compounds that make for great wine.
“As a researcher, I have more expensive tools for measuring water stress and all kinds of other processes in grapevines,” says Levin. “This tool is cheap enough for growers to use. And they should use it, because it will help them determine the amount and timing of water application that will be just right for their site, their grape variety, and the wine they’re aiming for.”
Tim Stock, integrated pest management specialist with OSU Extension, has a captive audience at a Willamette Valley high school. “Bring your clipboards, your checklist, and your flashlight,” Stock announces to the group, who are employees from a couple dozen school districts undergoing integrated pest management (IPM) training.
Mandated by state law, OSU Extension has drawn up IPM plans for schools to control pests and reduce risks, using chemicals as a last resort. Diseases that mice and rats can carry are the top health risk in schools. Stock wants his trainees to eliminate conditions that attract these pests. He leads the group to the room where the school’s culinary classes are taught. A couple of trainees spot rat droppings. Stock, the pest detective, begins his lesson in rodent prevention and control.
Next, OSU turf specialist Alec Kowalewski takes the trainees outside to the school’s sports fields. He crouches down and pulls up crabgrass and knotweed out of the grass, opening a discussion of low-toxicity weed control. The school district’s facility managers will use this training to help ensure a safe environment for Oregon’s school children.
The North Willamette Research and Extension Center (NWREC) is usually a pretty quiet place: 160 acres of Willamette Valley bottom land planted with experimental berry and vegetable fields, orchards, and Christmas trees, all surrounding a modest headquarters building.
This evening is different. Two hundred supporters, constituents, and public figures (including Gov. Kate Brown) have gathered for the center’s annual Harvest Dinner.
The guests graze on Beaver Classic cheeses and sample experimental beers, all made by students at OSU’s fermentation science labs in Corvallis. The feast also includes mixed-green salad, a tomato-melon salad, roasted root vegetables, and corn-squash succotash, all grown at NWREC and prepared by OSU’s research chef, Jason Ball. Ball, who works out of the Food Innovation Center in Portland, also created a smoked salmon “prottuccini” salad whose main ingredient is gluten-free noodles made from fish protein—an invention of OSU’s Seafood Lab in Astoria.
NWREC’s researchers support the valley’s important agricultural commodities, including nursery stock, berries, fresh-market and processed vegetables, Christmas trees, hazelnuts, and seed crops. Special programs target small and organic farms. NWREC researchers also conduct field trials to determine safe pesticide levels. The annual Harvest Dinner, now in its sixth year, is “the epitome of a farm-to-table dinner,” says center director Mike Bondi. “We have the luxury of showcasing our work, literally, on the table.”
The sun set hours ago in Baker County, and OSU graduate students are creeping through the sagebrush.
Night time is the right time for finding greater sage-grouse. Like most birds, the iconic sage-grouse—the subject of intense conservation efforts in the last two decades—is susceptible to bright light flashed in its eyes. All the better for these student researchers, under the charge of wildlife habitat ecologist Jonathan Dinkins, to capture and tag sage-grouse that have all but disappeared from the Baker area.
“During the day, grouse are very good at hiding,” Dinkins says. “At night, you can use a spotlight to see their eyes shining. A two-person team creeps up on them; one person shines a light while the other places a soft hoop-net over the bird so it doesn’t bounce around. The birds are actually very gentle, lovely to handle. They don’t scratch or peck very much.”
Dinkins’ team has attached GPS trackers onto sage-grouse in Baker, Malheur, and Harney counties. The purpose is to study their demographics connected to habitat quality and predator-prey dynamics, including reproductive success and mortality rate—and ultimately keep the birds from extirpation.
Three technicians from OSU’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife rock in an inflatable boat a mile offshore from Newport. The night is pitch-black except for a spotlight scanning the waves. The light picks up a dove-sized bird bobbing in the water.
The driver eases the Zodiac closer. A long-handled net extends over the rubber gunwale and gently scoops up the bird. It’s a marbled murrelet, a shy creature that feeds at sea and nests inland, in the tall conifers of the Pacific coast. The Zodiac sweeps a turn and heads back to the Pacific Storm, OSU’s 86-foot research vessel. There, OSU bird ecologist Kim Nelson and her tech team carefuly take custody of the bird, weigh it, measure it, photograph it, draw a tiny drop of its blood, and equip it with a tiny VHS radio. Then Nelson takes the bird in both hands, walks out onto the deck, and gently releases it back to sea.
The marbled murrelet is at the center of a long-running concern over logging and wildlife habitat in Pacific coastal forests. For almost 30 years, Nelson has studied these elusive birds, which are listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act. This three-year, comprehensive sea-based study will enable Nelson and her team to track the murrelets from their feeding grounds at sea to nesting sites on shore and back again.
“We want to learn more about where they nest on the landscape, what influences their ability to nest successfully, and ultimately how timber harvest near nests may influence their ability to breed successfully,” says Nelson. Findings from this study, which includes researchers from the Department of Forest Ecosystems and Society, will help lawmakers and regulators better manage logging in coastal forests.
The work of our researchers continues through the night.