“Farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil and you’re a thousand miles from the field.” Dwight D. Eisenhower
By Heidi Happonen
No matter the crop. No matter the livestock. If it’s agriculture or aquaculture—the production of any kind of agricultural product requires a tremendous amount of skill, determination, technical prowess, artistry…and unshakable optimism. When we account for the fact that roughly 2% of the population is responsible for feeding the rest of us, it is no wonder that so many people in the country have a hard time truly wrapping their heads around the complexity of agriculture.
In Oregon there are more than 225 agricultural commodities. They are managed across a network of more than 16 million acres of farms—and 95% of farms in Oregon are family held. The combined value of Oregon’s farmgate production is more than $5.5 billion with a total economic impact of $42 billion. When we truly start to contemplate the staggering figures, it’s remarkable how much responsibility lays on the shoulders of so few.
Trying to capture that complexity across all of the nuanced differences of our many varied agricultural commodities is nearly impossible. So, in an effort to shine a light on the importance of this mighty responsibility, we will take a look at just one. A big one. Our largest agricultural export. Oregon wheat.
The combined value of Oregon’s
farmgate production is more than $5.5 billion
with a total economic impact of $42 billion.
A steady hand trims a wheat flower and removes the pollen-forming anther in order to control fertilization among selected varieties.
A History of Oregon Wheat
Before diving into the history of wheat, it is important to acknowledge the legacy of agricultural production that dates back to Oregon’s Native American tribes who have managed the diverse landscape and natural resources of the Pacific Northwest for many generations—from salmon to western red cedar. Wheat is not indigenous to North America, and the growth of this crop can be traced back to settlers who moved to the Oregon Territory in the 1880’s bringing wheat to eat and wheat to plant. The first flour mill was located in John Day in 1865 and was built to sell flour to gold miners.
Over the years, as the railroad expanded from the east to west and later in the 1950s when hydroelectric dams along the Columbia River made it more affordable to ship wheat to Portland, the industry slowly grew to be the number one agricultural export out of the state. Today, more than 85% of Oregon wheat is exported from the Port of Portland and SW Washington and enjoyed all over the world in the form of pastries, flat breads, and noodles.
While the industry has evolved and is now a largely export-driven commodity, many of the producers responsible for growing wheat have done so for generations. And for more than 150 years, scientific partners that have worked shoulder to shoulder with growers have been the researchers and educators at Oregon State University’s College of Agricultural Sciences.
A Million Decisions a Minute
With wheat, like other agricultural commodities, there are countless decisions to be made set against a backdrop of continually shifting challenges and realities.
There are decisions about what variety of wheat to plant, harnessing the power of genetics to combat pathogens and pests, without risking the reputation of Oregon wheat’s high quality.
Growers look to Oregon State’s wheat breeding program to address those questions, and specifically they look to Dr. Andrew Ross, a professor in the College of Agricultural Sciences Crop and Soil Science Department.
“It can take ten years to develop a variety that meets the exacting needs of the industry and the market,” Ross explained. “You can be looking for a handful of unique traits and the number of individual progenies required to get there is in the thousands.”
Greg Goad, a farm manager in Pendleton, equates the battle with disease and fungus to a never-ending war,
“It’s an arms race between the science and the disease.”
He went on to draw the analogy to antibiotics, noting that when new antibiotics are released, they are great and get prescribed for “a whole bunch of stuff.” But, five years down the road they are not working as well.
“In America, in general, that has lost value in the minds of a lot of people, because we’ve never been forced with serious deficiency,” Goad added. “The farm programs and research, what happens there, puts food on the table. Growers raise the food, but the reason we are able to stay here, and do it economically is because of the researchers that help us fight that never-ending war.”
Growers raise the food, but the reason we are able to stay here,
and do it economically is because of the researchers
that help us fight that never-ending war.
OSU cereal pathologist Christina Hagerty and faculty research assistant Duncan Kroese planting wheat in research plots at the OSU Columbia Basin Agricultural Research Center near Pendleton.
Good Enough Isn’t Good Enough
In addition to disease resistance, there is a hierarchy of quality testing that Ross and his lab performs, monitoring for hardiness, milling performance, and absorption. Oregon largely grows soft wheat, which is used in products such as cookies, cakes, crackers, soft steam buns, tempura, and noodles. A centralized lab in Pullman also conducts tests on sponge cakes for east Asian markets in Japan and South Korea.
Dr. Christina Hagerty, an associate professor of plant pathology based out of the Columbia Basin Agricultural Research Center (CBARC) in Pendleton, works directly with growers nearly every day. She recognizes the importance and challenge of breeding, noting that “we hear stories about breeders loving a new variety for its disease resistance, but then Andrew will say ‘this doesn’t have the right quality profile’.”
According to Hagerty, great varieties must possess yield potential, disease resistance, and quality. Striking that balance is a fine line and one that leaders in the wheat industry value deeply.
Amanda Hoey, CEO of the Oregon Wheat Commission takes the quality of wheat in the region very seriously.
“We have a focus on quality in the Pacific Northwest,” she said, “which also provides us an advantage in the market to sell wheat at a premium.”
It’s that focus that inspired the Oregon Wheat Commission to be one of the first agricultural commissions to invest in an endowed professorship at Oregon State.
So, there’s genetics. And the myriad of decisions and countless trials that go into the breeding process for wheat varieties.
And that’s all before it gets planted.
There’s also the cultural management of production. What the producer does day-to-day, the selection of a seeding date, the decision to till or not to till. Did they choose a cultivar that can withstand temperature shifts in agronomic zones?
Hagerty is in the fields regularly with growers, helping them to make these important decisions with science-based analysis and measured research.
“The profit margins are so slim,” Hagerty said. “In terms of research, if we can contribute to their profit margin with data-driven decisions, to ensure that the razor thin profit margin is the best it can be–even if it’s helping a producer save $10 per acre on a given product–that’s a huge economic impact and is really the reason why I get excited about the work I do here every day.”
Reflecting upon the impact of that relationship, Goad shared a story from his childhood.
“When I was a grade-schooler, we had an outbreak of rust. I could walk out through the wheat field and my jeans would turn a brownish red, you couldn’t see the blue anymore. We weren’t sure if we were going to survive it. But after a couple years, OSU came out with a new variety of soft white that saved the industry. So, I have a special place in my heart for OSU and the scientists there.”
Another component of that complex decision making includes consideration of different abiotic stressors, such as soil acidity.
“There’s a race with breeders producing new varieties and then we have Mother Nature with biotic living things and abiotic stress that can challenge new genetics.”
According to Hagerty, the nitrification reaction in soils that become more acidic in certain soil types, plus the addition of biotic stressors like pathogens, like new race of stripe rust, only add to a constant battle.
“50 years ago, growers and scientists weren’t thinking about soil acidity,” Hagerty added. Noting how staggering the multitude of decisions and challenges growers face on any given day.
Endless Decisions Mean Endless Opportunities. And Endless Ways to Fail.
This leads to another critical decision-making tree—chemical management. The decision to treat seeds presents a series of complex and vital decisions.
Growers will turn to organizations like Northwest Grain Growers, Morrow County Grain Growers, Mid-Columbia Producers and others to order a specific type of seed care package to mitigate some of the potential risks they see in that year’s season.
But even if you make all of the “right” decisions, there are always things out of the control of the grower. In 2021, for example, there was a record-breaking drought, which decimated many of Oregon’s wheat crops.
“When you think of the mental health of farmers, cutting wheat because you have to harvest it even if it’s worth less than the fuel costs to do so…not enough people think about that,” Hagerty added.
Fuel costs, in good years and bad, are a constant struggle for wheat growers.
According to Hoey, fuel and fertilizer costs have a huge impact on production and the costs of those have escalated dramatically over the last year. Add to that the cost of equipment, maintenance, and the cost of doing business in general, and the spreadsheet can easily start having a lot of red before anything is harvested.
“The price of wheat will vary with a huge amount of volatility,” Hoey added, “but the cost of doing business doesn’t come down as quickly.”
Decisions that producers must make about how much to invest in genetic selection, land management, and chemical management all cost money. And those decisions are largely made in a vacuum relative to how much they can expect to recoup those investments.
Hagerty shared Hoey’s concern about the volatility of the price of wheat, adding “Since I started in 2016, the price of wheat has not been great and hasn’t done the farmers justice. That razor thin margin of profitability just seems to keep getting narrower.”
But then there is a year like 2022.
Just as the drought of 2021 destroyed so many crops, the April rains of 2022 helped growers realize a bumper crop this year. Add to this the impacts of conflicts overseas in places like Russia and the Ukraine where roughly 30% of the exportable wheat supply is found, and suddenly Oregon’s export-focused wheat market is seen differently on the international stage. That being said, the harsh reality according to Hoey is that when the conflict started there was a big price jump, but it was after the 2021 crop had largely been sold. Most growers could not capture that price. And while the price is better this year than last, it remains a moving target that is unreliable even in the best of times.
Even success brings its own set of challenges. Where do you store the wheat? Can it get shipped fast enough? What if there are challenges at the Port with logistics and other issues. What about the availability of labor? Add to that the fluctuating value of the dollar overseas and its relative buying power and you start to realize that the tail-end of this endeavor to grow food and feed the world suddenly becomes astronomically unpredictable and endlessly complex.
This is where a statistic that might have been glossed over at the start of this story deserves to be pondered in a new light.
That’s the approximate population responsible for managing all of this so that the rest of us can go to the grocery store and put food on our tables.
Reflecting upon the producers she works with, Hagerty paused and said, “These are some of the smartest people on earth. Farming is no joke. It is exceedingly difficult and every day they wake up and have a complex decision-making strategy to keep their farm whole. On top of that, every year there are fewer and fewer farmers tasked with feeding more and more people.”
Keep Hope Alive
In the summer of 2022, rolling green fields of lush wheat spread out as far as the eye could see in Pendleton. Like an ocean rippling in the wind with hope and redemption from years past. But that’s just one year. A year that may have been good for some Oregon farmers, but not for farmers in other parts of the state or country.
The risks that agricultural producers take every year are far greater than nearly any other profession. Add to that the fact that so many farms are family held, and aren’t just economic legacies. They are family legacies. The farm is a part of a community’s culture and is far more than just a livelihood to most. Perhaps it is because of that that the ag producer is a perennial optimist. For every bad year (and there are many) hope prevails that next year will be better.
Art and science. Hope and determination. Faith and flexibility. All of these must be balanced to accomplish what is arguably a minor miracle to stock the shelves of our grocery stores with safe, affordable, healthy foods.
In a final thought about the role she plays in helping wheat growers in Pendleton lean into that hope, Hagerty reflected upon a well-known sentiment: Never before have so many relied on so few.
“If I have a shot at contributing ever so slightly to that, that’s where my passion lies.”