From potatoes to hemp
The former Central Oregon Ag Research Center in Powell Butte is now used for industrial hemp production.
Oregon State University sold the property to Mike Cowan in June after determining there was not enough money in the budget to continue operations.
"The OSU Agricultural Experiment Station's budget has been in decline for many years," said Dan Edge, the associate dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences at OSU. He noted, however, that local stakeholders have stepped up to provide local funding and many stations are now supported by tax districts.
"They finally decided that it was going to cost too much money to bring it back up to maintain the buildings and upgrade the buildings and to do other research out there," said Mylen Bohle, the Central Oregon area Extension agronomist with OSU Extension Service.
The station, located on "Waibel Corner" on Highway 126 in Powell Butte, opened in the late 1980s after Vick Wiley donated the land to the university in a living trust agreement.
"He donated it and then the university paid him so much a year as an income," Bohle explained, noting that Wiley passed away several years ago.
Oregon Potato Commission and OSU Agricultural Experiment Station contributed funds to construct the buildings and purchase equipment for it to be used as a potato research center.
The Powell Butte Central Oregon Ag Research Center was a satellite experiment station of the main station headquarters in Madras.
For many years, Steve James was the head potato researcher at the Powell Butte station.
The 79-acre station includes three main buildings and a greenhouse.
There's a shop and office building, an old livestock barn that came with the land donation and was used for storage, and the main building.
A climate-controlled potato storage was on the north side of the main building. It also had a work room, walk-in refrigerators and French fry machines for testing.
When Bohle came on in 1989, he used both buildings for his research.
He researched forage and cereal crops and did some "state-wide" wheat variety trials. He also grew cereals (winter and spring wheat, triticale, barley, oat and rye) for hay and conducted alfalfa variety trials, grass variety trials, grass species trials, alfalfa weed control trials, and did soil fertility trials at the station.
"We did a lot of grinding of plant samples in both buildings, getting them ready to go to a lab to test for quality or test for nutrients," he said.
But, he said, potato research was what paid the bills.
"That was where the most money came in," he said. "A lot of the seed potatoes were started here and then as they moved through the system, they went to Klamath Falls, and they went to Hermiston next, trying to come up with different varieties of potatoes out of the many, many thousands trialed."
After James retired, two others briefly ran the potato research.
Then, 10 years ago, everything in the potato world stopped.
"It was quarantined because we discovered a cyst nematode that had come in on an experimental lot of potatoes from Idaho," Bohle said.
The arrival of the parasite stopped the potato research because they did not know how this unknown cyst nematode would affect potato plants.
"There was a previously unidentified nematode found at the Powell Butte site which caused us to cease operations there until it could be determined if it was a pest on potatoes or not," explained Central Oregon Ag Research and Extension Center Director Carol Tollefson.
"Between Oregon Department of Ag and APHIS (Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service) and Oregon State University, they quarantined it, and so we shut it down," Bohle recalls.
No more research that might result in soil being moved off-site was to be conducted there.
Through research conducted by OSU's Russ Ingham and USDA ARS scientist Inga Zasada, it was determined that the nematode would not be classified as a potato pathogen.
"They finally figured out even though the potato plant would host it, it did not seem to effect the quality nor the yield of the potato plant," Bohle said.
But by then, the buildings and facilities needed upgrading.
"This then led to a need to determine the future of the Powell Butte location," Tollefson said.
According to Edge, it was not that they didn't have the money, but the question was a cost/benefit analysis.
"We have the capacity elsewhere to conduct the research that was possible at Powell Butte elsewhere, and it would cost substantial sums to restart and maintain a station that was not unique in its purpose," Edge said.
"Through meetings with stakeholders, and advisory group, and OSU administrators, it was determined that the best course of action would be to permanently close the location and then to sell it," Tollefson said. "This decision was based largely upon the fiscal situation."
She noted that it would have taken a large sum of money to put the location back into research, including bringing the heating system and other facilities up to code and investing in staff at the location.
"We really needed to put up a deer and elk proof fence around it because even at the end of my last trials out there, some of them were being compromised by the deer and the elk grazing on them," Bohle said, noting that it was hard on his data.
All the equipment that pertained to potato research was divided up between the Hermiston, Klamath Falls and Malheur experiment stations. The primary purpose for the station, growing seed potatoes, was now being adequately covered at those experiment stations.
All research in Crook County being conducted by OSU faculty is occurring at on-farm locations in cooperation with local growers, Tollefson noted. The Central Oregon Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Madras has the capacity to conduct the other research and outreach needs identified for the Powell Butte location.
The Central Oregon Agricultural Research and Extension Center located in Madras has a commitment to support growers across the region in cooperation with Extension faculty who are assigned to the Crook County office.
Tollefson said funds from the sale of the property have been deposited into the Wiley Endowment account at the OSU Foundation, and earnings from the fund are designated to support Agricultural Research in central Oregon.