The role and impact of the agricultural experiment station system
By Sean Nealon and Heidi Happonen
Tom Sharp is a first-generation rancher in an area where there are not a lot of first-generation ranchers. In 2007, after retiring from a career as an electrical engineer in Portland, he settled outside Burns, Oregon to start his next career: cattle ranching.
Without a family legacy to turn to for insight, he had a lot of questions. And more than a few doubters. So, he turned to the scientists at Oregon State University’s Eastern Oregon Agricultural Research Center (EOARC).
“They listen very well,” said Sharp, sitting on his back deck of his ranch house, overlooking a canyon choked with endless miles of sagebrush and juniper. “They are part of the community. They live here also. They are not just clocking in and clocking out.
“They really have both their knowledge of the head invested in what is happening in this region, as well as their heart invested in how it impacts the people who live here and are trying to make a living here and raise families here.”
That commitment to the science as well as the place and the people that science serves is a theme echoed throughout the state as the secret sauce of what makes the statewide agricultural experiment station system so invaluable.
COLLABORATION AND COMMUNITY
As the founding college of the state’s land grant university, the College of Agricultural Sciences operates 11 agricultural experiment stations at 14 locations, from the coast to downtown Portland to the Willamette Valley to southern, central and eastern Oregon. More than 400 scientists work at these stations building relationships with community members and addressing pressing local issues related to agricultural competitiveness and resilience, healthy markets and food systems, working and natural landscapes and critical conservation needs.
Sharp’s sentiments are echoed by farmers, growers, fishers, and entrepreneurs in every corner of the state.
Brenda Smith is one of those voices. She leads the High Desert Partnership, a nonprofit that brings together collaboratives of people in Harney County to address issues such wildfire, sage grouse management and economic development. She often works closely with researchers at EOARC on scientific studies.
“The scientists at the station don’t just come to these collaborative groups and present their science and say ‘See, ya’ we’ll let you guys figure it out,” Smith said. “They’re partners in these collaboratives.”
Research by scientists at the EOARC played a key role in a 2015 decision not to list sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act, which could have increased regulatory obligations associated with land management activities, such as grazing, a possibility that deeply concerned many local ranchers and land managers.
While collaboration and community are core to the activities at every experiment station, each one approaches their work in their own unique way – a reality borne out of the specific needs and culture of the communities they serve. EOARC is no exception.
Collaboration is knit into the DNA of this station with locations in both Burns and Union. It includes scientists from Oregon State, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service and The Nature Conservancy. Together, they work on issues that impact local land managers and more broadly the sagebrush-steppe ecosystem, including wildfires; controlling juniper, which competes with native vegetation; and managing invasive species, such as cheatgrass, which propagate fire.
Vanessa Schroeder, a rangeland ecologist at the station used the phrase “customer-driven science” to describe what they do.
“We will often find ourselves in rooms with maybe some very left and some very right people on the political spectrum in terms of diverse views, even in ecosystem management,” she said. “With the ag experiment station, because of the science that we do, we’re able to not only play the science role, filling those knowledge gaps, but we’re really integral to these different collaboratives and we can get people on the same page either through the science or just through the trust in OSU that honestly I don’t think would be there if the university was only in Corvallis.”
Scientists like Schroeder are often seen as unbiased mediators. They are accustomed to helping apply scientific discovery to sometimes heated issues in a way that considers the broader implications of a community that relies on the industries impacted by those issues.
“We aren’t up in an ivory tower somewhere conducting theoretical research,” EOARC’s station director David Bohnert added. “We are on the ground, leading the highest levels of scientific inquiry in partnership with local ranchers who are also our neighbors. Their success isn’t just a part of our work. It’s personal.”
SCIENCE YOU CAN SEE
Two hours to the east of Burns, scientists at the Malheur Experiment Station in Ontario are researching weed control, insect management and water efficient irrigation methods to assist farmers who grow onions, potatoes, corn and sugar beets in the arid region along the Oregon/Idaho border. The region is one of the nation’s largest producers of onions, and Grant Kitamura, CEO of Ontario-based Baker & Murakami Produce Company, is the largest volume onion shipper in Idaho and Eastern Oregon and one of the biggest in the country. The company annually ships 3 to 3 ½ million, 50-pound bags of onions.
“We maintain our foothold and market share and it’s attributed to the experiment station and the science,” said Kitamura, sitting in his office, with walls covered in an onion print, onion poster and onion oil paintings.
“We can’t just do trial and error. It’s not going to work. They do the trial and error.”
Kitamura, who has been in the onion growing business for 41 years, cited federal food safety regulations that were proposed in 2012. The regulations would have had devastating consequences on onion growers, he said, by limiting their ability to use irrigation water on their crops because of the perceived threat of E. coli.
Research by Clint Shock, the former director of the experiment station, and others found that the onions would not be contaminated by E. coli. Not only does the soil filter out a significant amount of the bacteria, but the curing of onions provides further help.
Kay Riley, manager of Snake River Produce in Nyssa, just south of Ontario, said of that research:
“Literally, Oregon State University, the Experiment Station and Extension Service has saved our industry with the work they have done.”
Riley also cited the importance of weekly counts of thrips, an insect that damages onion crops, in fields throughout the region, conducted by Stuart Reitz, the current director of the experiment station. Riley, who also has more than 40 years in the onion business, called this “invaluable information” because it lets farmers know about pest pressures and helps them adjust their management program.
Leaning back on his chair in the office of Skeen Farms a prolific onion farm in Nyassa, Paul Skeen, who has grown onions and other crops in the region since 1973, patted the phone in his breast pocket and declared:
“I read Stuart’s thrip report before I read my scriptures.”
Skeen and other farmers in the region, including Tyler Wagstaff, of WBH Farms & Central Produce, all talk about the importance of weed control research, led by Joel Felix at the experiment station.
Driving through the farm’s 5,000 acres one day in late July weeks before the start of the onion harvest, dust kicked up by his Ford F-250 pickup, Wagstaff bemoaned the site of yellow nutsedge, a weed that is destroying up to 40% of the region’s onion crop.
“I have never seen it this bad,” he said, looking at some of the 1,000 acres of onions grown on the family-run farm.
Yellow nutsedge can outgrow onions and make them unharvestable. Wagstaff is grateful for Joel Felix, a weed scientist at the experiment station who he referred to as “Mr. Yellow Nutsedge.” Felix and others are studying ways to control the weed, including with herbicides and other methods, such as robotic weeding.
That weed research, and the fact that Wagstaff can reach Felix or Reitz whenever he needs to, is emblematic of the relationship between the experiment station scientists and local farmers.
“I don’t know how they could do a better job – to embed in the community,” Wagstaff said. “That’s a big deal. It’s not just, ‘oh, that’s the experiment station, stay away.’ You’re always welcome there.”
A FOUNDATION OF TRUSTED RELATIONSHIPS
Just as Reitz is out in the fields conducting thrip research, scientists at stations across the state are as likely to be found in the fields and pastures of local farmers and ranchers or on the docks or vessels of fishing communities, as they are in the station itself. Working shoulder to shoulder with owners and field hands, scientists fan out across the regions they serve to meet the evolving needs of Oregon’s densely diverse natural landscape and its more than 225 agricultural commodities.
In Jackson County, Dancin Vineyard, owned by Dan and Cindy Marca, is currently working with the Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center (SOREC) on research that aims to better manage increasingly dry growing conditions.
Alec Levin is a viticulturist at SOREC and a member of the Oregon Wine Research Institute – a partnership between the Oregon wine industry and Oregon State University’s College of Agricultural Sciences. He is working directly with Dancin Vineyards on a variety of water quality and quantity testing projects.
One such project aims to test varying degrees of water stress with the goal to provide information that will help wine grape growers make informed decisions about irrigation to reduce the amount of water needed to grow high quality grapes. Dancin Vineyards is one of three locations ranging in different climates and soil types, all using the same pinot noir and root stock material.
“We are fortunate to have partners like Dancin Vineyards to help us conduct important research as we address water scarcity issues,” Levin explained. “If we were just doing this research in one location the results would have all kinds of caveats and asterisks – but this multi-location approach will ultimately enable us to provide broad ranging inferences about when to turn the water on.”
And Marca is eager to participate.
“The science that is being done today with the experiment station will likely save this industry in the future as we meet the growing challenges of water management issues and climate change,” he said.
“Plus, I know Alec and anyone else at the station is just a phone call away if I have questions. That relationship is essential and if the scientists were based in Corvallis, I don’t think it would be possible.”
A few miles away in Central Point, Paul Murdoch runs a hemp farm that grew about 11 acres of hemp this year. As a new commodity following the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill legalizing the cultivation of industrial hemp, it may have more mysteries associated with it than any other crop. But with those mysteries come many opportunities which has led to a boom in hemp farming from non-traditional farmers.
Paul, a retired technology executive, was inspired to start hemp farming following a serious accident that caused him to lose a large amount of his lower leg creating a series of painful efforts to recover. It wasn’t until his son suggested a CBD ointment that he might apply to his healed but still hurting leg that he finally found relief.
“That’s when I knew I had to get involved in this industry,” he said. “I wanted to make a difference and I saw the potential hemp had to do just that.”
Working with SOREC and the Global Hemp Innovation Center at OSU, Paul is keenly aware of the value of science.
“This crop has been illegal since the early 1900s,” he said “It is decades behind other crops in terms of scientific discovery. I know the CBD ointment works, for example, but the science as to how or why it works is still being discovered.”
Gordon Jones and Govinda Shrestha both work with Paul on his hemp field production, conducting integrated pest management research and helping to create better understanding of the ideal growing conditions for the plant.
“We are still so early on in our understanding of hemp,” added Jones, “but being able to work directly with accomplished growers like Paul makes our research much more productive.”
JUST ADD WATER
One consistent issue across the entire state is water. As climate change continues to impact precipitation, the real challenges of quantity, quality, and access to water keep many farmers up at night and are a part of research being conducted at most of the college’s experiment stations.
Klamath Basin Research and Experiment Station (KBREC) may arguably be the epicenter of that research as the region has suffered water access issues for decades.
Water rights have long been an issue in the Klamath Basin. Agricultural interests need water for irrigation, while some tribal and commercial fishing interests need water levels in the Upper Klamath Lake and Klamath River to support healthy fish populations and provide spawning ground for fish such as salmon, as well as short-nose and lost river suckers.
Historically, forced water shutoffs designed to protect declining populations of threatened fish have resulted in extensive crop damage. There have also been massive fish die-offs both when irrigation needs were met and in years where they haven’t.
As challenges to water access have intensified, the quality of the limited available water has become an increasingly critical issue.
Dr. Gerrad Jones, an assistant professor in the department of Biological & Ecological Engineering at is attempting to shed some light on the real causes for water quality issues in the region. By bringing some scientific clarity to the debate, the goal is to ultimately define lasting solutions that will benefit all.
Jones is a member of the Quechan (Kwatsáan) tribe and including local tribes in this project was important to him. At the same time, Brian Charlton, the director of the Klamath Basin Research and Extension Center and co-investigator of the project plans to engage the local agricultural community in the effort.
Being able to start this project as a kind of collaboration speaks to the tone Jones hopes to set for the process. One big outcome the project aims to achieve is the opportunity to overcome past arguments so that diverse stakeholders can align around the common goal to improve both water quantity and quality in the region.
“We’re just getting started,” Jones added. “And while the science is important, we have to conduct the research against a backdrop of conflict that has been a part of this issue for years. Having everyone engaged and at the table from the beginning is a big part of what success will look like.”
That conflict and that collaboration is a delicate balancing act that members of the Klamath Water Users Association — a non-profit private corporation that has represented farmers and ranchers working on Klamath Reclamation Project in its current form since 1953.
Mark Johnson, deputy director of the association, notes the invaluable role that KBREC scientists play in the increasingly complex issues of water in the region.
“The science is important, but it’s also important that we are able to communicate that science in such a way that people are able to come to the table and have consensus about the best path forward in managing water in the region,” Johnson said.
KBREC director, Brian Charlton, regularly participates at KWUA meetings, bringing scientific analysis and understanding of irrigation needs in the community.
At the start of the summer, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation deemed it necessary to shut off water to the expansive irrigation system that serves more than 200,000 acres of farmland in region.
Initiated by “exceptional” drought conditions, no water was made available for irrigators in 2021. Unless farmers had their own well-water access, they had no ability to irrigate their farmland. Many farmers in the region have expressed concern that continued constraints like this on water will ultimately mean farmers will have to leave, choking the economic and cultural identity of the Basin with potentially devastating long-term impacts for a community that relies on agriculture.
Striking a balance between conservation and production is at the heart much of the work done at the College and water is no exception. While research continues, it is because of partnerships like those between the experiment station and the local community, that some see as the hope for a viable solution.
“The scientific rigor and unbiased approach that OSU can bring to this issue has never been more important,” Johnson added. “If they weren’t right here in the community with us, I don’t think their work could have nearly the impact.”
A short drive west of Klamath Falls back in Medford, is home to Oregon’s high quality pear production industry. Attributed by many to the well-known fruit and gift basket company, Harry and David, the pears produced in this region are recognized globally for their sweet, flavorful taste. Not a small feat for a fruit that can be a challenge to eat at just the right time.
As Ralph Waldo Emerson once noted: “There are only ten minutes in the life of a pear when it is perfect to eat.”
According to KC Achala, a scientist working with pear growers at SOREC, the issues facing the industry are complex and ever evolving.
“Our farmers are dealing with pest management issues, water access, and the challenges of marketing,” Achala noted. “It takes true partnership to tackle those issues with science-based discovery.”
In fact, much of the Rogue Valley where these pears are produced is known for its focus on high-quality agricultural products. From pears to wine and now hemp, the region attracts an entrepreneurial, creative approach to agricultural production.
Part of that focus on quality over quantity is also the reality of a lack of agricultural land. The Valley consists of both urban and rural interests which can present conflict.
According to Rich Roseburg, director of SOREC, “The urban and rural overlap in the valley is a significant challenge. A lot of the urban community doesn’t have a real grasp of the history of agricultural production in the region and the important role it plays not just in local agritourism dollars but in serving the rest of Oregon with innovative, creative crop development.”
CONNECTED TO THE PAST. EMBEDDED IN THE FUTURE.
More than 531,000 jobs are associated with the agriculture, food and fiber industry. Oregon’s agricultural industry is valued at total farmgate production of $5.5 billion and overall economic impact from the food system of $42 billion. It is a part of the culture and values in Oregon with 95% of its farmland family held and 60% of all of its private land used for farming. In addition, the global reach of Oregon’s agricultural system continues to grow, with exports up 25% since 2015. 
One of the cornerstones of Oregon’s agricultural and economic future is found in its experiment stations. Scientists are embedded in the communities they serve, building relationships based on trust, shared goals, and truly innovative research. It is a unique system that has bolstered Oregon’s agricultural heritage, created opportunities for communities to thrive, and enhance economic value in each of the state’s 36 counties.
As Kay Riley explained, gazing across the expansive fields on his family’s farm, “It would be devastating if the stations weren’t there. Absolutely devastating.”
 Oregon Agriculture Food and Fiber Economic Analysis published by the College of Agricultural Sciences in partnership with the Oregon Department of Agriculture.