Founded in 1913, the Mid-Columbia Agricultural Research and Extension Center continues to play an integral role in the success of Oregon’s “fruit basket.”
By Chris Branam
In 1905, Oregon Agricultural Experiment Station Director James Withycombe noted the need for an agricultural experiment station in Hood River County.
“Without doubt, fruit growing is the most rapidly developing branch of agriculture at the present time,” Withycombe wrote in his annual report to Oregon Agricultural College President J.W. Kerr. The Hood River Branch Station was established in 1913, and, some 10 years later, research to support the apple industry was in full swing in the heart of the Columbia Gorge.
In the early 1930s, when the country was in the grips of the Great Depression, the station reported more achievements: the cherry fruit fly was controlled, a cooperative fruit-breeding program was established with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and ripening methods of Bosc pears were discovered.
Now, more than 80 years later, the Mid-Columbia Agricultural Research and Extension Center (MCAREC) continues to play an integral role in the success Oregon’s “fruit basket.” Tree fruits, particularly pears and cherries, are a mainstay of the economy in the heavily agricultural mid-Columbia area. Hood River County leads the nation in pear production, and the fruit-growing district of The Dalles has the nation’s largest concentration of sweet cherry acreage.
Working on 55 acres of state- and county-owned irrigated orchard land in the shadow of Mount Hood, MCAREC horticulturists, postharvest physiologists, and entomologists help fruit growers in north-central Oregon and south-central Washington continue to operate profitably and sustainably.
“Our primary research programs are designed to meet the challenges and needs of fruit growers not only in this area but also throughout the Pacific Northwest,” says Steve Castagnoli, director of MCAREC and Extension faculty member at the center for 17 years. “One of the big challenges for our growers is the availability of labor, which has decreased over the last 20 years. Our crops require a lot of hand labor.”
To address the growing labor challenges, MCAREC and local producers are exploring how to integrate technology into their production.
“Increasing the efficiency of production may involve the use of machines to replace or augment human efforts,” he says. “A big part of that is having orchard systems that are well-adapted to either mechanization or mechanical systems.”
According to Castagnoli, some of MCAREC’s recent accomplishments include:
- Fruit-handling techniques to minimize post-harvest problems that lower fruit value.
- Packaging solutions that extend storage life, making Oregon cherries and pears more competitive in export markets.
- IPM programs that enable growers to manage insects and diseases with less reliance on chemical pesticides.
- Development of “size-controlling” (i.e., dwarf or semi-dwarf) rootstocks to support cherry and pear orchard systems that can be managed with less hand labor.
- A growth-and-development model for cherries, now in development, that will predict dates of fruit maturity so that growers can schedule harvests more precisely.
Our primary research programs are designed to meet the challenges and needs of fruit growers not only in this area but also throughout the Pacific Northwest.
Two tree fruit specialists have joined MCAREC this year: Mateus Pasa and Ashley Thompson.
Pasa, who spent a year in Hood River during his dissertation research studying the effects of the plant growth regulator prohexadione calcium on pear trees, is leading the MCAREC horticulture research program. He will be developing a multifaceted research program on innovative sweet cherry and pear production systems addressing critical needs of the tree fruit industry.
Thompson replaced Lynn Long, longtime Extension horticulturist in Wasco County who retired. Her applied research focus includes ground cover management, soil fertility, plant nutrition, plant-microbe interactions, and plant pathology.
Both Thompson and Pasa will continue to develop new rootstocks that allow for planting orchards in higher densities, paving the way for more mechanization and reduced labor costs.
Pests are perpetual problems to fruit producers, and generations of OSU research reflect that focus. For example, pesticides were once considered the primary weapon against the Western cherry fruit fly. In the past, orchards were sprayed from airplanes with broad-spectrum pesticides to suppress the fly. Using a strategy of integrated pest management, OSU researchers introduced thick bait applied only where needed to kill pesky flies before they can lay eggs.
The Pacific Northwest’s tree fruit industry faces new challenges from two more recent foreign invaders: the spotted wing drosophila and the brown marmorated stink bug. Scientists are helping to design new traps and to pinpoint what and when to spray to protect crops. They are searching for natural enemies that seek out and destroy the pests.
“Our growers have been fairly successful for developing and implementing integrated pest management where they’ve reduced the amount of chemical and insecticide use in their orchards,’ Castagnoli says. “But with these exotic pests we don’t yet have biocontrols or natural enemies to keep them in check, and growers are really forced to spray more.”
OSU’s researchers in Oregon’s fruit basket are up to the challenge.
MCAREC at a Glance
Master Gardeners maintain horticultural displays in the Learning Garden at MCAREC, where everything from the Japanese Heritage Garden commemorating Japanese Americans interned during World War II to ornamental grasses can inspire visitors. Central Gorge Master Gardeners assemble vegetable starts at MCAREC for their annual spring plant sale benefitting local community and school gardens.
Birth of a Center
In 1947, the Oregon Legislature appropriated $20,000 to establish an experimental area in The Dalles for conducting investigations and experimentation into the “problems of producing, fertilizing, harvesting, varietal testing, soil improving, irrigating, handling, storing, utilizing, controlling diseases and pests, and on such other problems of horticultural field crops as may arise in the area.” The 1953 Legislature changed the name of the Hood River Branch Experiment Station to Mid-Columbia Experiment Station and broadened its scope to include both Hood River and Wasco counties.
About 25 years ago young codling moth larvae were tunneling into pears and apples and ruining crops all over Oregon. Insecticide sprays in use at the time were broad-spectrum and indiscriminate, killing both the moths and the helpful predators of other problem insects. OSU researchers demonstrated and facilitated a much more targeted approach to pest management, using pheromones that disrupt the mating patterns of codling moths but do not interfere with beneficial predatory insects.