Solving the mysteries of agriculture
Throughout the year, agricultural specialists at Oregon State University's North Willamette Research and Extension Center (NWREC) in Aurora conduct experiments aimed at improving agricultural production in the state of Oregon and, potentially, the industry at large.
And for one evening a year — this time July 31 — the state college opened the facility to the public.
"We are the only agricultural experiment station or farm serving agriculture in the entire Willamette Valley," said NWREC Director Mike Bondi. "This is the only one where agricultural research is being done on the farm crops that people are trying to grow around here."
Here are some of the projects they highlighted at the NWREC open house Wednesday, July 31.
Fresh strawberries from spring to winter
Javier Fernandez-Salvador, NWREC's berry and olive specialist, said Oregon used to be the top grower of strawberries in the United States.
But since tastes have changed from canned to fresh fruit, Florida and California have leaped ahead of Oregon largely due to their warmer climate that allows strawberries to be grown for a larger portion of the year.
Currently in Oregon, strawberries are typically harvested only for six weeks during the summer. However, Fernandez-Salvador and others at the research center are attempting to change that.
To do this, they have developed plastic tunnels that cover the berries, which increases the temperature of the strawberries when the sun is out but the weather is cold and shields them from the sun during the dog days of summer. The sides of the tunnels also can open or close to either decrease or increase heat.
"If it rains, all the rain goes to the sides (due to the tunnels' protection). It keeps our grass green. If it's sunny you put it like this (remove the protective barrier on the side) and it still has a benefit because it protects from too much heat and the UV (ultraviolet) burn of the fruit," Fernando-Salvador said.
The facility also uses seeds from California that are day neutral, meaning they aren't dependent on sunlight, and heats them in greenhouses for part of the year. In turn, he said the strawberries grew from April to November last year and is hoping for a similar harvest season this year.
"What we're doing is using structures and modified environments," Fernandez-Salvador said. "The low tunnels help a lot. There's a significant difference in temperature from the outside to the inside (of the tunnels)."
Next year, Fernandez-Salvador said the facility hopes to add high tunnels that also would extend the strawberry season and include a rotation that could feature broccoli, tomatoes and other crops.
"(If you) grow strawberries, strawberries, strawberries, you're going to have disease problems, insect problems, soil problems," he said. "You reduce disease (with the rotation). You can add biomass and organic matter to the crop because you're doing a rotation."
Growing quinoa in Oregon
Kristie Buckland, the NWREC vegetable and specialty seed crop specialist, said that while the vast majority of available quinoa is produced in South America, the market for quinoa in the United States has grown exponentially in the last few decades.
In turn, might it behoove farmers in the United States to produce more of the grain? According to Buckland, it's a bit more complicated.
"The profitable aspect is really what's in question right now, to be able to manage it for weeds and insects and still get enough yield that you come out on a net positive side," she said. "That's the part that researchers all over the country are trying to figure out."
Last year, Buckland and others tried to grow quinoa but found that their harvest was ravaged by lygus bugs.
"We had fields that had zero seeds that were viable last year because of the damage," she said.
So this year, they are experimenting with growing crops like physalia to surround the quinoa harvest and wall off the pesky insects.
"We're hoping the lygus would prefer to go to the physalia," Buckland said. "I would like to see zero (bugs) on the quinoa, but I don't know in reality what we will see."
In the future, Buckland hopes to study how the timing of planting quinoa and the protective plants could improve the process.
Since 2008, Oregon State University blueberry agent Wei Yang has been working on an unprecedented project — developing a one-stem grafted blueberry tree.
Currently, due to the many stems on a blueberry bush, about 30% of the blueberries farmers attempt to collect with their machinery fall to the ground and are, in turn, wasted. However, with the tree, Yang said all the blueberries can be collected. Other advantages of the tree is that it can grow despite a higher pH level in the soil, is easier to apply herbicides to, and doesn't require as much watering.
"We think that if it works it may revolutionize the whole blueberry industry worldwide," Yang said.
The project initially was funded by the Oregon Blueberry Commission and then received grant funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Yang said, right now, OSU is going through a patent process for the tree, and Yang hopes to then distribute it to local nurseries before it is released for commercial production.
Bondi said industrial hemp was grown in the Willamette Valley until it was criminalized by the federal government in 1937. But in 2018, Congress passed the Farm Bill, which legalized the plant that is the same genus but different species as marijuana. Now, OSU is researching industrial hemp at the extension and other facilities across Oregon.
"The world of opportunities for industrial hemp is huge," Bondi said. "The biggest thing right now is CBD oil. That has everybody's attention because that's an extractive type of product, and so what we're launching here is the agricultural resource and development to help the growers grow that crop in the Willamette Valley."
The research center is working to certify the seeds so that farmers know which ones to use and to register pesticides that can be applied to hemp.
"For this industry to grow, farmers are going to want to get the right seed. If I'm growing it for CBD it can't have any THC (the element that provides intoxication) in it. That has to be bulletproof," Bondi said. "Oregon State University is uniquely positioned because we have a huge seed certification program, and we've worked for agriculture for years in this state to certify seed production so we can have a very reliable seed industry."
For more information on the extension program, visit https://extension.oregonstate.edu/nwrec.
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