State of Change: Against the Grain

“Typically, agriculture producers are an adaptable group; however, increased heat and water stress, changes in pest and disease pressures, and weather extremes will pose adaptation challenges for many crop and livestock production systems.”
Oregon Climate Assessment Report

Walter Powell grows wheat near Condon and participates in a three-state study to develop varieties adapted to warmer, drier conditions. (Photo: Lynn Ketchum: OSU Extension and Experiment Station Communications)
Walter Powell grows wheat near Condon and participates in a three-state study to develop varieties adapted to warmer, drier conditions. (Photo: Lynn Ketchum: OSU Extension and Experiment Station Communications)

By Lee Anna Sherman

PENDLETON, Oregon – Technology rules. Oregon’s wheat country is no exception. Today’s farmers use precision electronics for site-specific applications of seed, fertilizer and pesticides. Many of the advances are geared toward ecosystem protection. But farmers are nothing if not pragmatic. Few would invest in the expensive, environmentally friendly equipment if it didn’t pencil out on their balance sheets.

So says Walter Powell, vice president of the Oregon Wheat Growers League. On his farm, which rambles across 380 acres in the hamlet of Condon, tractors are fitted with the latest in electronic sensors and GPS software. His “auto-steer” and “auto-boom” devices are fine-tuned to prevent over-use of chemicals.

State of Change

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Powell is more than happy to give nature a break. But in his day-to-day operations, new technologies have to make sense economically. Turns out, they do. Adopting precision equipment has saved Powell significant costs on fuel and “inputs” — materials that growers add to soils and crops to boost yields, repel pests and block weeds.

That’s what he told Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley when they sat face to face in Merkley’s Washington, D.C., office last spring. With the new Farm Bill making its way through Congress, Powell was lobbying for continued government support for EQIP, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Environmental Quality Incentives Program, which he regards as a life-support system for precision agriculture.

“Sen. Merkley is a tech guy,” Powell says. “He got really interested when I started telling him about the impact of precision technology for cutting down on pesticide residue and nitrate leaching. All of a sudden, this grower from Eastern Oregon and the senator from Portland were speaking the same language.”

On climate change, Powell is equally forward-looking. “I’m less skeptical about climate change than most growers,” he says. Off the top of his head, he cites recent climate studies by the International Energy Agency and “ex-skeptic” Richard Muller of the University of California, Berkeley. Then he chuckles. “Farmers do read, you know.”

Any Other Name

Steve Petrie has worked with Powell and other growers for decades. A soil scientist and director of OSU’s Columbia Basin Agricultural Research Center, which has experimental farms at Pendleton and Moro, Petrie knows wheat like the back of his sun-browned hand. He also understands the staunchly conservative community that produces that wheat, which in Oregon grossed $354 million in 2010. On climate change, he reports, their attitudes range from “full acceptance to healthy skepticism to outright rejection.”

But the range of views doesn’t worry him. Even though growers are key participants in a $20 million USDA-funded study of climate impacts on cereal crops in the Pacific Northwest, they don’t have to buy into the science or terminology of global warming in their role as stakeholder advisers, argues Petrie, who served on the Agricultural Technical Committee of the Oregon Global Warming Commission. After all, adapting to nature’s fluctuations is what farmers do every day to survive. It’s in their DNA.

“We’re doing research into better farming practices under changing conditions,” says Petrie, one of the managers for the Oregon portion of the three-state study. “If some of our stakeholders are skeptical about it, that’s OK because they’ll still benefit from the practices that are developed through this research.”

Stephen Machado agrees. “The term ‘climate change’ has been so politicized,” says the OSU agronomist and crop physiologist who grew up in Zimbabwe. “Growers have been adapting to changing conditions all along. Right now we just have a fancy name for it.”

The growers on the stakeholders advisory committee aren’t shy about challenging the scientists. “The stakeholders come to our meetings and ask really tough questions,” says Petrie. “It helps ground us. In our world of science, sometimes we forget about the practicality of things. For the growers, everything is really down to earth.”

Amber Waves

The Palouse is an ancient landscape of ice-carved hummocks and hollows rippling across northeastern Oregon, southeastern Washington and north-central Idaho. In all but a few spots, native grasses long ago gave way to fields of wheat, along with some dry peas, lentils and alfalfa.

For 80 years, OSU has studied wheat from every angle. Disease resistance, yield potential, milling and baking qualities, soil erosion and pesticide use are just a few. Now, along with neighboring land grants Washington State and the University of Idaho, OSU is expanding those experiments to look at how grain crops will fare under future climate conditions. By feeding their data into WSU-designed computer models, the researchers will generate a range of possible scenarios.

Petrie anticipates that growers could wind up with more invasive plants, more destructive pests and new disease outbreaks as winters become warmer and summers become wetter.

“We can begin to make inroads in our understanding with this five-year study,” says Petrie. “But we really have to look at this as part of a 50-year process or, actually, a forever process — always adapting our cropping practices to fit the world in which we’re growing crops, whether the conditions are due to climate change or some other factor.”