Station Profile: Playing a Pivotal Role

Mini pivot irrigation system on one of the research plots at OSU's Hermiston Agricultural Research and Extension Center.

By Chris Branam

The irrigated section of the Columbia Basin in north-central Oregon, extending into Washington, is one of the most productive agricultural areas in the world, with at least 204 crops grown in the region.

It wasn’t always that way.

In 1909, the U.S. Reclamation Service (now the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation), began the development of the Umatilla Irrigation Project on about 25,000 acres in northwest Umatilla County, near the confluence of the Umatilla and Columbia rivers. Water from the Umatilla River was dammed and diverted into the Cold Springs Reservoir.

According to 100 Years of Progress, published on the centennial of the Oregon Agricultural Experiment Station in 1988, “wide publicity about the new irrigation project brought a steady number of new settlers into the area. Many had no previous farming experience … the sandy land they tried to cultivate was often incapable of growing anything. It immediately became necessary to provide settlers with information to guide them in their efforts to establish farms.”

The Oregon Agricultural Experiment Station “came to the rescue by entering into a cooperative agreement with the Bureau of Plant Industry of the USDA,” according to 100 Years of Progress. Funds were appropriated in the 1909 Oregon Legislature to establish the Umatilla Branch Station.

We grow things like the growers, and we provide new research-based information to help them be successful.

A century later, the Hermiston Agricultural Research and Extension Center (HAREC) continues to be an essential partner to growers on both the Oregon and Washington sides of the Columbia Basin. HAREC is the second-oldest experiment station in the state; only Union (1901) is older.

“Because of the length of time we have been here, and the new research information we have provided, folks know about us,” says HAREC Director Phil Hamm. “They know where we’re located. Because of the things we do in the community, the committees that we serve on, the interaction we have in schools, they know about Oregon State University.”

One example of HAREC’s devotion to the communities it serves: Four years ago, the experiment station decided to start partnering with local producers and the nonprofit Farmers Ending Hunger to put potatoes to good use in food boxes for families in need. Another example: HAREC has a 1942 Dodge flatbed truck, painted orange and black, that always is part of local parades.

Six miles from the Columbia River, HAREC researchers study irrigated crops such as potatoes, sweet corn, grass seed, beans, and melons; grains like wheat, triticale, and barley; and other new and traditional crops. The station features a plant pathology clinic that diagnoses unknown problems in plant samples as well as an insect identification clinic, both of which help growers and food-processing company representatives make quick, correct, and environmentally safe decisions related to crop production issues.

HAREC spans 300 acres and includes seven laboratories, six greenhouses, two screen houses and 15 center-pivot irrigation systems. The pivots are gifts from agribusinesses and others so OSU research can be done under the same conditions as in the region’s commercial fields.

When collectively viewed, there may not be another experiment station in the state with similar facilities, Hamm says.

“We grow things like the growers, and we provide new research-based information to help them be successful,” Hamm says. “The initial three pivots placed in the station in 1989 were the result of growers coming together and saying, ‘You need to be doing your research under center-pivot irrigation systems like we are.’”

Hamm, a retired OSU plant pathologist, has been at the Hermiston station for nearly 30 years, including the last 13 as director. This summer, he will retire from that position, wrapping nearly 45 years with OSU.

“Because of the huge support we have from a wide variety of stakeholders and supporters, because of our importance to this region, because of how we interact with growers and provide new and important information, this station will continue to be such a vital aspect to support what the growers do. I see nothing but positive things in the future,” he says.

OSU Extension plant pathologist Ken Frost inspects potato plants in the screened research plots at the OSU Hermiston Agricultural Research and Extension Center

HAREC at a Glance

Melons and spuds

The long growing season in the Columbia Basin, combined with well-drained soils, quality irrigation water and warm days and cool nights help over 200 crops thrive. HAREC researchers study many of them, but the station is best known for two: potatoes and watermelons.

Potatoes are the primary crop in the region, in terms of farm gate receipts and employment. The potato-processing behemoth Lamb-Weston has a large plant just down the road from HAREC.

Sagar Sathuvalli, an OSU potato breeder in Hermiston, cultivates disease-resistant potato varieties. Just last year, the Tri-State Potato Breeding Program, of which OSU is a member, released Echo Russet and Castle Russet for grower trials.

In the late 1980s, George Clough, an OSU agricultural research horticulturist, developed new melon varieties and new drip irrigation and plastic film mulches to conserve water. Clough and other scientists at the research center helped turn watermelon production into a multi-million-dollar agricultural industry in the Hermiston area.

“Hermiston watermelons are the sweetest, guaranteed to be sweeter than anywhere else,” Hamm says. “That sweetness translates into higher potato, corn, wheat yields. This is such an important food production area because the climate, soil and water aspects are so unique to this region.”

Bug off

The Irrigated Agriculture Entomology Laboratory is an important applied research resource against crop-damaging insects. OSU Extension entomologist Silvia Rondon, who heads the lab, is leading the battle against the potato psyllid, which injects potato plants with a lethal bacterium that causes zebra chip disease, which discolors the flesh of potatoes and makes them unmarketable.

Rondon is partnering with OSU colleagues Stuart Reitz and Molly Engle in a collaboration with other Pacific Northwest university and industry partners on a five-year study funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture focused on the disease, which was unknown in the region until 2011, when a surprise outbreak sent tremors through growers of the Northwest’s most valuable vegetable crop.

Rondon’s research group, which includes undergraduates and graduate students, also spent last summer conducting lygus, thrips, mites, and wireworm trials; a seed corn maggot onion trial and for the first time, a carrot trial.

Ecological impacts

It’s not just crops that are the focus of study in Hermiston. Sandy DeBano and Dave Wooster, associate professors in OSU’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, are stationed in Hermiston and lead the Invertebrate Ecology Laboratory.

DeBano is collaborating with the U.S. Forest Service on how land management and restoration influence pollinators – especially native bees – in riparian areas. Among Wooster’s projects is an investigation of summer flows on river ecology, invasive crayfish, and river restoration.

The “E” in HAREC

The center has a strong Extension presence with nearly every faculty member having an Extension appointment. Based at HAREC are Anna Browne, who leads the 4-H Juntos and Open Campus programs in Umatilla County; and Angie Treadwell, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Education Program (SNAP-Ed) Coordinator for Umatilla and Morrow counties. Treadwell has partnered with Sathuvalli in creating new ways to develop nutritious and tasty potato dishes.

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