Station Profile: Going With the Grain

Wheat at the Columbia Basin Agricultural Research Center (Photo by Betsy Hartley.)

Their names included Turkey, Rex, Elmar, and Omar.
And don’t forget Gaines and Moro.

By Chris Branam


n the first 40 years at Oregon State University’s agricultural experiment station near Pendleton, wheat breeders produced a dizzying amount of soft white winter wheat varieties, all of which were superior in some ways to their predecessors. Disease resistance and yield were the leading indicators of success. Omar, for example, resisted all strains of smut. Gaines provided a yield increase of six to eight bushels in some areas.

Moro, released in 1965, was resistant to smut and stripe rust, which was then causing major losses for wheat growers. (Side note: The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s rules for naming seed varieties are complex, but the bottom line is the originator of a new variety may give that variety a name.)

Stephens came along in the late 1970s and changed everything.

Stephens — developed by Warren Kronstad, professor of plant breeding and genetics and named for an early cereals breeder at the Sherman Branch Station — became the top-grown soft white winter wheat in the Pacific Northwest. By 1984, it represented about 40 percent of the total wheat acreage in the region. It had an uninterrupted run until 2010, when it was overtaken by ORCF-101, a variety OSU helped develop with USDA and industry.

“Stephens wheat phenomenally increased yields,” says Mary Corp, director of the Columbia Basin Agricultural Research Center (CBARC). “Since Stephens, we’ve developed new varieties, new production practices, and new weed control tools that have helped build the overall yield and make wheat profitable for the long term. We have a long history here of working for and with dryland wheat farmers.”

Some people think these fields are a national treasure.

Dryland agriculture, growing crops without irrigation, is the focus of research at the center, where as little as 12 inches of precipitation falls each year. It’s the highly productive soil that makes the Columbia Basin one of the world’s premier wheat-producing regions, and field trials at the CBARC have continued uninterrupted since the Great Depression. These dozens of test plots of wheat, barley, and peas offer researchers a unique insight into how dryland farming affects the land over the long haul.

“Some people think these fields are a national treasure,” CBARC plant pathologist Christina Hagerty told OAP in 2018. “I don’t disagree.”

The station near Pendleton is a shared facility with USDA’s Agricultural Research Service. OSU researchers also partner closely with their colleagues at Washington State University and University of Idaho.

Corp has retired from her faculty position as professor in the OSU Department of Crop and Soil Science. She will continue as CBARC director until mid-2020. She’s encouraged by the addition of two new faculty that have joined the station in the past couple of years: Christina Hagerty and Ryan Graebner.

“Christina and Ryan both bring a fresh set of eyes and skills and techniques,” Corp says. “We also have younger growers, and we are bringing them together with our younger scientists. Our future is strong.”

CBARC At a Glance

A station by any other name …

Dry farming research started at the Moro Branch Station (later known as Sherman station) in 1909. The Pendleton Branch Station was established in 1927 and changed its name to the Columbia Basin Agricultural Research Center in 1970. The Moro station was added administratively to CBARC in 1973.

Yes, to no-till

For the past 17 years, research plots at CBARC in Moro have shown that no-till farming— where farmers drill in the seed without disturbing the surrounding soil — increases soil organic matter and fertility, conserves moisture, and efficiently controls weeds. Research led by OSU agronomist Stephen Machado shows that, over the past decade, employing no-till farming produced higher yields than conventional methods.

From northeast Oregon to the Far East

Wheat is one of Oregon’s top agricultural products, ranking sixth in the state in 2017 with a production value nearing $240 million. Wheat is the No. 1 product exported through the Port of Portland, with the bulk of the grain headed to the Far East for use in sponge cakes, cookies, flatbreads, and Asian noodles.

Prickly problem

In the fall of 2015, farmers in northeastern Oregon reported difficulties in controlling Russian thistle (also known as tumbleweed) with glyphosate. Judit Barroso, a weed scientist at CBARC, and OSU Extension agent Larry Lutcher conducted field trials on alternative herbicides and presented integrated weed management practices during grower meetings, field days, and tours. Wheat producers are adopting new strategies as they learn more about possible alternative practices that address this critical problem, especially in lower rainfall areas.

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