COARC prepares ag for changing times
Despite crippling budget cuts, OSU's research facility looks to prepare agriculture in Central Oregon for changing times.
Clint Jacks, superintendent at the Central Oregon Agricultural Research Center (COARC), addressed a tour group of about 30 people when he said, "We're the recipients of a down-sized budget. We have lost a foreman, a researcher, a research assistant, and we've pretty much lost all of our operating funds to support research."
Local farmers, Jefferson County Commissioners, and other interested parties had assembled for the tour in the morning heat on the Agency Plains.
As seed companies, state funds, and federal funds have picked up the tab on research, COARC is moving forward on its projects.
"We would have a lot more efforts going into potential new crops. So we've lost that capacity," said Jacks.
He went on to say that he doesn't see any budget relief in the near future, but that there probably will not be any more reductions in funds.
Jacks also doubts that the research center will be able to keep pace with inflation. "We're just going to have to do better at what we're all about," he added.
The budget cuts have hurt the research center where it counts -- in developing new crops.
According to Kip Light, local seed farmer, "You see this about every 10 or 15 years, there's new crops introduced into this area and that's what's really kept us going here in Central Oregon as far as farming."
Jacks agreed, "For farming it's getting market, market, market. What we have to do here at this research unit is to look at growing a new crop, but also the potential market for that new crop."
There are still some efforts at the research center in new crop development despite budget setbacks.
During the tour, functional foods in the form of potatoes was showcased by Steve James. He explained that hundreds of thousands of new strains of potatoes are created each year and out of these he is looking to develop one in particular that is high in antioxidants. What makes this spud functional are the health benefits of antioxidants: cardiovascular health, cancer prevention, and retarding macular degeneration of the retina.
James also noted that the variety of potato Russet Burbank, also the most common potato used in cooking, is susceptible to many diseases and various insects.
According to the study, only 60 percent of this crop is marketable and new varieties that are more resistant should be developed and introduced. This project is funded by the USDA and Oregon Potato Commission.
Mylen Bohle, Rhonda Simmons, and Tim Deboodt are monitoring commercial and forage species of grass and alfalfa to determine resilience and yield potentials.
Even though 60 percent of the irrigated land in Central Oregon is related to livestock, these crops are not the money makers.
"Out of the 60,000 acres that we have in Jefferson County, we have 13,000 in, what we consider, high value crops," said Jacks.
Those high value crops are the seed crops that are sold on markets throughout the world.
According to Jacks, Central Oregon produces high quality seeds because of the cool nights and short growing season, which make the seeds vigorous.
But, there are less than 4,500 acres in carrots seeds at a given time. "It is profitable, but you're never going to have a large number of acres. You're depending on a few small, high value crops to carry you through," Jacks said. These must be rotated with crops such as wheat and alfalfa.
Preparing for the future
"One of the things that we see as we go into the future is more focus on sustainable farming, the green industry. There's a whole new set of value systems that people bring in with them and that is going to force more of the green market," Jacks said.
"You can moan and bemoan the fact that we're going to have more populations, but the flip side of that is that there's a market and then we need to capture that market. Ten years from now we're going to have a different set of crops," explained Jacks.
One facet of the green industry is the demand for organic products. For seed growers this means developing organic seed. Jacks sees this on the horizon, but research projects have yet to be implemented at COARC.
Water in the Deschutes River Basin is becoming a paramount issue.
"We're going to be really watching water and how we apply it. There's going to be a lot more balance between what that crop needs versus what is being applied. Some of the more inefficient irrigation systems are going by the wayside," Jacks said.
Marvin Butler, Caroline Weber, and Claudia Campbell are tackling this issue with a project called "Evaluation of drip irrigation on carrots grown for seed in commercial fields."
This study has yielded hopeful results. Jacks said of the project, "if you go back five years, when we first started there was a lot of skepticism, even on our part, whether that (drip system irrigation) was going to be a technology that was going to be important."
Results from the study show that yields can be increased and the use of fertilizers and pesticides can be reduced, while water use is dramatically reduced with drip irrigation systems.
The reduction of fertilizers has become especially important as a result of high levels of nitrates found in Willow Creek by Scott Lewis, fisheries biologist for Portland General Electric. Lewis attributes these concentrations to farming operations on the Agency Plains using nitrogen-based fertilizer.
The use of moisture blocks will also become more prolific. These units provide a readout that says exactly how much moisture is in the ground. In turn the farmer then knows how much water to apply.
Jacks is confident that North Unit Irrigation District is ahead of the curve in water conservation. "For Central Oregon as a whole, this irrigation district is well managed. You order an acre foot of water, you get an acre foot of water and it's cut off. Other irrigation districts are going to have to go like us," he said.