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The Road to Plenty

New ways to feed the world are emerging through technology and environmental stewardship

By Nick Houtman

In 1937, Oregon Agricultural College was reeling from five years of Depression-era budget cuts and staff reductions. The School of Agriculture had lost a quarter of its faculty positions. The survival of the Agricultural Experiment Station — OAC’s statewide research network — was at stake.

James Withycombe was Agricultural Experiment Station director from 1908-1914 and governor of Oregon from 1915-1919. (Photo courtesy of OSU Libraries Special Collections and Archives)

However, with record-breaking success in fields from poultry to plant breeding and dairy science, OAC was delivering on its land grant mission. It was building the state’s economy. For station director William A. Schoenfeld and his team, it was time to celebrate.

Created by the federal Hatch Act in 1887, the station had 50 years of achievements under its belt. Development of a way to remove arsenic-based pesticide residues from fruit topped the station’s own list of its 15 most important achievements. The innovative process had been adopted around the country and saved the state’s apple and pear industries from threatened market sanctions abroad.

It was the kind of success that led to broad public support. During the 1930s, even as resources were shrinking on the Corvallis campus, new branch stations were opening in Medford, Burns and Klamath County. The Experiment Station was evolving into the broad based, locally connected enterprise it is today.

Other milestones included a solution for Bang’s Disease (aka brucellosis), a destructive dairy cattle problem; development of the Oregon seed industry through the leadership of OAC scientist George Hyslop; a system for breeding champion egg-laying chickens; and a method for making maraschino cherries.

Three-legged Stool

“When the land grant started (1862), President Lincoln was in the middle of the Civil War,” says Dan Arp, dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences and director of the Experiment Station. “But he had the good sense to do the land grant, homestead and the railroad. That’s so amazingly forward thinking.”

In 1915, an agriculture class studied in a field with a horse-drawn harrow. (Photo courtesy of OSU Libraries Special Collection and Archives Research Center)

Nevertheless, universities struggled to do the research that was necessary to fulfill their mission, and it took another 25 years for the nation’s agricultural practices to be given systematic scientific support through the Hatch Act.

Sharing hard-won knowledge was another matter. Those scientists — including James Withycombe, the respected Hillsboro farmer who became Experiment Station director and then governor — boarded trains and conducted farmers’ institutes in southern and western Oregon. They gave lectures and showed photos with a steriopticon, a predecessor of slide and film. These events were so popular that the state Legislature allocated funds to conduct more, and 25 years after the Hatch Act, the federal government created the Extension Service.

“Now we’ve got this system in place that eventually grows to become the envy of the world,” says Arp. “We have the Cooperative Extension Service coupled with research coupled with the land grant university.

Wilson Foote, OSU agronomist, removes anthers from inbred barleys in preparation for crossing with other lines. (Photo courtesy of OSU Libraries Special Collections and Archives Research Center)

“Remember, that about 70 percent of the people were farmers. It was a very different world in terms of the technology they were using. Knowledge was passed down from father to son and not so much daughters at that time. It was very much an art and not so much science, and people learned by watching their neighbors.”

Today, advances in plant and animal breeding, diseases, soil management, irrigation and ecology have transformed agriculture, but art is an underappreciated part of the story. While science provides the best evidence-based approach to managing the land, applying that knowledge is ultimately an act of creativity. “Each piece of land is unique,” says Arp, “and your responsibility as a farmer is to understand your property and how you use science for that piece of land.”

Cauldron of Experimentation

Solving local problems has been the bread and butter of agricultural science: how to raise wheat where rainfall is abundant or barely fills a coffee cup; how to produce grass seed without burning the harvested stubble; how to foster native bunch grasses and sage brush on weed infested rangelands. But increasingly, says Arp, it’s the global challenges that keep researchers awake at night.

Farm on Helmick Rd., OR, by Connie Mueller, Eugene. Mueller was granted the 2018 Dean and Director, College of Agricultural Sciences and Oregon Agricultural Experiment Station; and the Paul Lamb and Reese Lamb Memorial Art About Agriculture purchase awards, sponsored by Dan and Wanda Arp, the Lamb Foundation, and the College of Agricultural Sciences, Oregon State University.

Models of population growth point to 9 to 10 billion people on the planet by 2050. “That’s only 32 years away. That’s not very long to figure out how to feed another 2 billion people or more,” he says. “There isn’t getting to be a lot more arable land. So how do we get to that?”

Technology is likely to be part of the answer. Genomics, robotics, sensors, geoengineering, artificial intelligence and other tools are already reshaping food production. They are contributing, says Arp, to what Paul Jepsen, director of OSU’s Integrated Plant Protection Center, calls “sustainable intensification.” In short, we’ll need to produce more food per acre in a way that can be sustained for the long haul.

Oregon will play a pivotal role because of its diversity and entrepreneurial spirit. “We are this remarkable cauldron of experimentation, given all the different growing regions we have. All of the major soil groups in the world are here in Oregon. We will be more recognized as this place to come to learn about production practices.”

The Future of Agriculture

For a perspective on that future, it helps to start with old photos. Chad Higgins, associate professor in the Department of Biological and Ecological Engineering, wonders if his predecessors — who are pictured with horse-drawn carriages, dressed in coats and ties for the lab — would have had a clue about how agriculture would change over the following century. Likewise, researchers and food producers 150 years from now might look back and wonder if we really had any idea where things were headed.

Modern tractors can be equipped with a GPS system that can drive itself by following a recorded track under the driver’s supervision. (Photo: Jennifer Hamilton)

“But the trend has always been to increase the efficiency, increase the productivity, increase the automation, increase the control,” says Higgins, “and I wonder if the end state is complete automation.

“Farmers are decision engines, but as with all of our jobs, automation is going to continue. First the physical aspects are going to be automated, planting and harvesting. The management decisions, data collection and optimization of farm operation and irrigation scheduling could get automated. Same with fertilizer and pesticide applications.”

Higgins explores the intersection of farming and technology. For example, he and his students are testing the idea that RFID (radio-frequency identification) devices, which are commonly used to track inventory in retail stores, can generate a round-the-clock, area-wide picture of soil moisture. Such information could help fine tune planting and irrigation schedules. The researchers are using unmanned aerial systems (drones) to record light reflected from plant leaves and to translate data into indications of stress.

Competition over land, he adds, will drive further innovations. The push for renewable energy is a case in point. In Eastern Oregon, Higgins and his colleagues have already shown that planting some crops under solar collectors can reduce water stress while simultaneously increasing plant productivity and the operating efficiency of the solar array. It would not work with all crops, such as those that require combines or other large machinery.

Nevertheless, farmers in Central and Eastern Oregon could manage sunlight in the same way they now manage other inputs such as water and fertilizer.

“I think there will be a whole advancement in systems thinking as it relates to agriculture in a more inclusive sense,” says Higgins. “There will be competing demands for water, for land and for agricultural products. And I think we’re going to think more broadly about those demands and how the farm is being managed and squeezed on every side.”

Soils as Living Systems

While tomatoes and other vegetables can be produced in hydroponic systems — networks of pipes that carry water-based nutrients to plant roots — most crops will continue to be planted in the soil. And despite the inherent properties of earth from place to place, says Jay Noller, professor and head in the Department of Crop and Soil Science, agriculture is increasingly being done in soils that are the result of geoengineering.

(Photo courtesy of Extension and Experiment Station Communications)

By that, he means that farm fields will be constructed on site or wrapped in bioplastic sheets to meet the needs of a particular crop under a particular set of climate conditions. “We come in with solar-powered land levelers, and it’s all terraced,” he says. “So this idea of the soil having an innate inherited paradigm will be shed. The plat (land ownership map) says you have this part of the world, but you bring in all these materials at great cost and say here’s the starting condition for the next few centuries. That’s the big change. The markets are taking us there, or authoritarian governments are taking us there.”

As examples, Noller points to terraces near Boise, Idaho, where “they brought in a Southern California housing development approach,” bulldozed hills into level terraces and constructed a mixture of soils on site. In the Yangtzee River delta in China, bioplastic-wrapped rice fields can be measured by the square mile.

That approach contrasts with the ongoing shift toward no-till practices in much of the United States. By not plowing their fields and drilling seeds into undisturbed ground instead, farmers reduce the likelihood of soil erosion, cut carbon emissions to the atmosphere (and possibly store more carbon in the soil) and allow underground ecosystems to develop. Weeds are generally managed with herbicides in conventional practice today, whereas in the future, they’ll be outcompeted by new crop varieties or obliterated by automated field machinery. Plant pathogens will be moderated by a grower focus on healthy soil.

Soils evolve over centuries, says Noller, and it will probably take at least 150 years to determine what soil properties — biological, chemical and physical — result from current no-till practices. To understand such changes, researchers are already developing the ability to scan all the genomes present in a soil sample. As farmers test their soils for growing specific crops or to determine the results of geoengineering, “that genetic fingerprint will let us know if we’re successful, if we have what we need to grow food,” says Noller.

Fish for the Future

Although Oregon policymakers have set the state on a clear path toward wild instead of farm-raised fish, Oregon State University has been a leader in international freshwater aquaculture. Growth of this industry, what economic development experts call the “blue revolution,” means that it is likely to become a bigger part of global food production in the future.

In Tanzania, Aquafish scientists have studied the use of alternative protein sources for Nile tilapia. (Photo courtesy of the Aquafish Innovation Lab)

Through the efforts of Hillary Egna, lead scientist and director of OSU’s Aquafish Innovation Lab, fish farming has become an increasingly important source of nutrition and economic development in places like Southeast Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and Central America. Over the last decade, largely with funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development, Egna and her colleagues in the United States and abroad have trained more than 10,000 people in aquaculture methods and marketing. Production has increased to the point that in some countries, farm-raised fish are being sold to meet local needs and to provide badly needed export income.

“Let’s face it,” says Egna, “aquaculture is harder than other cropping systems. First, you can’t see what you’re growing. That’s probably the most important. But also, the supply chain can get quite expensive, and it isn’t well established. It involves more risk than something like sorghum or beans and even horticulture.”

Egna’s interest stemmed from her conviction that fish farming could provide a source of vital protein and micronutrients for children as well as a sustainable business in much of the world. “People sometimes question why we would help everyone else and not do this for ourselves,” she says. “We do have return benefits. Many of these overseas companies buy U.S. products. They might buy our satellite time so they can look at what’s happening with their offshore production to manage their auto-feeders, or they might buy our auto-feeders. They buy the feed that they use or buy our soy that goes into their feed.”

In Oregon, aquaculture is likely to serve high-value, niche markets. The state has a long history with oysters, and another opportunity lies with dulse (seaweed), especially the variety that tastes like bacon when properly cooked. Although Oregon’s natural resources could support well-regulated, fresh-water fish farms, environmental laws and concerns over wild fisheries, says Egna, are likely to constrain future development.

Location Matters

When it comes to breeding new plant varieties, Pat Hayes takes the long view. The professor in the Department of Crop and Soil Science and director of Barley World at OSU notes that two years before Oregon State was designated a land grant college, an Austrian monk published groundbreaking work on the nature of trait inheritance in peas. However, Gregor Mendel’s paper was largely forgotten until 1900. Before that, there was little to no plant breeding for scientific purposes at Oregon Agricultural College or anywhere else. Its rediscovery launched a frenzy of research to identify Mendel’s “elements” that are responsible for variations in plants.

Pat Hayes examines a stalk of barley, which has a smaller genome than that of wheat and offers plant breeders the advantage of relative simplicity. (Photo: Lynn Ketchum)

“One hundred and fifty years ago,” says Hayes, “Mendel figured out what variants were and how they’re inherited, and now we can create new variants, new genes.” Geneticists can explore and manipulate the genome with precision, although, says Hayes, developing varieties with desirable traits can usually be done by traditional breeding techniques.

Hayes and his colleagues specialize in barley, one of the first domesticated crops. With a genome that is smaller than that of wheat, barley offers plant breeders the advantage of relative simplicity. Hayes’ lab has focused, for example, on the genes responsible for cold tolerance and light sensitivity, traits that could be important for helping varieties adapt to climate change.

Scientific curiosity and the ability to breed plants adapted to specific places, says Hayes, will drive plant breeding innovation in the future. And when he asks his students what breeders should try to achieve through research, he hears this: “You want crop varieties to give something back and get away from mining the environment,” says Hayes. “They might give back in terms of carbon sequestration, in terms of nitrogen fixation, in terms of ecosystem services. We need to get away from crops that create dead zones in the ocean or contaminate aquifers.”

Shared Rangelands

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, ranching in Eastern Oregon nearly became a “tragedy of the commons.” With no regulation, cattle were allowed to overgraze on native bunchgrasses and other high quality forage. “We’re still dealing with the consequences of that,” says David Bohnert, director of the Eastern Oregon Agricultural Research Center in Burns.

Harvey Ranch manager Jared Kerr moves cattle into the high country outside of Paisley, Oregon. (Photo courtesy of Extension and Experiment Station Communications)

Today, to be a cattle rancher takes more than knowledge of livestock and business. Increasingly, ranchers share the range with endangered and invasive species and become embroiled in debates about wildfire, water rights and the management of public lands. “You almost have to be a lawyer with what’s going on with public lands policy,” says Bohnert. “You have to be a natural resource manager and understand the Endangered Species Act and wildlife issues and be a tech guy.”

Both Oregon State University and the USDA Agricultural Research Service employ researchers at the EOARC. Bohnert and his colleagues tap expertise across the West to answer common problems, from cattle genetics to sage-grouse restoration and the consequences of grazing by wild horses and burros.

When breeding new livestock, for example, ranchers tended to stick with favorites such as Angus or Hereford. That may change as a result of ongoing studies of how cattle genetics affect an animal’s fitness for a specific environment, says Bohnert.

In the future, ranchers will take advantage of knowledge from rangeland studies of grazing impacts on invasive plants and the effects of horses on sage-grouse nesting behavior. They are also likely to be using GPS to track their herds.

It costs about $200 to put a GPS unit on a cow. “You don’t need to put them on every animal,” says Bohnert, “but what if you could put them on a few animals that are representative of your herd and see where your cattle graze?

Although Bohnert sees a continuing demand for mass-market beef, ranchers will pay more attention to managing cattle for specific consumer preferences. “Organic,” “grass-fed” and animals raised without the use of antibiotics will likely continue to command a higher price in the marketplace, he says.

Community Resilience

Even as agriculture continues to change through technology and other innovations, rural economies will reflect the stunning variety of Oregon’s landscape: rivers, mountains, forests, grasslands, bays and harbors.

“Something that we often miss is that there is a tremendous amount of diversity in rural America,” says Mallory Rahe, an Extension community economist and instructor in the Department of Applied Economics. “People might have personal experience with areas that are losing population. That’s a very specific trajectory caused by different things in these communities. It’s hard to reverse. But there are a lot of communities that are growing and changing, and here in the West, some of them are growing against their will.”

Future development depends on local leadership and community willingness to experiment, to take advantage of niches in the marketplace and to find connections with urban centers. For communities with a strong agricultural focus, technology is likely to be an opportunity for future growth. “The real need to balance economic and environmental issues on the farm is creating a lot of areas for opportunity, for invention and for jobs,” Rahe says. “Students who are aware of those trends and can help shift production in that direction will find jobs in agriculture.”

Nevertheless, for the community as a whole, technology can also raise the threat of external competition. Success increasingly demands that local businesses keep track of trends outside the community in order to respond to economic changes.

“Communities that don’t look at how things are changing are more likely to be passed by or have change affect them,” adds Rahe. “By the time they recognize that things are changing, it’s too late to mitigate all the negative impacts.”

Efficient Food Processing

The astounding variety of modern foods becomes apparent just by walking down the aisles of a grocery store. While the produce, meat and seafood sections offer fresh, minimally processed products, everything else has been dried, canned, fermented, baked or frozen. All of it has been packaged at a cost in materials and energy.

The future of this industry will be driven by the need to become more efficient, says Yanyun Zhao, professor in the Department of Food Science and Technology and an Extension specialist in value-added food processing. “Increased population and reduced resources are driving innovation in food processing,” she says. “From the consumer’s standpoint, we are looking for new ways to reduce food waste and energy demand.”

OSU food science researcher Yanyun Zhao holds a muffin made with grape pomace, which is comprised of the skins, seeds and stems left over from winemaking. (Photo: Lynn Ketchum)

Zhao’s lab focuses on such natural, biodegradable packaging materials as chitosan, which stems from crab and shrimp shells and offers antimicrobial and antioxidant benefits. By combining chitosan with other natural substances, Zhao and her team have created edible coatings and films that can help extend the shelf life of fruits, fish, meats and other products.

Zhao is also exploring the uses of a fruit processing and winemaking byproduct known as pomace, which consists of stems, skins and seeds. While fruit juice and wine makers must find ways to have pomace removed from their facilities, Zhao has shown that the material can be turned into a nutritionally beneficial food ingredient or converted into biodegradable packaging materials.

“Ideally we could eat everything fresh, but it’s not possible,” says Zhao. “When we process food, we need to be aware of qualities like taste, smell and flavor, but the big priority is food safety.”


Note: Research as Diverse as Oregon

OSU’s land grant heritage arises naturally from the state’s diversity. The College of Agricultural Sciences, Agricultural Experiment Station and Extension Service serve people and communities from the coast to the mountains and rangelands of Eastern Oregon. They work from the valleys of southern Oregon to the Portland metro region and the Columba River. The perspectives reflected in this story offer a diverse but small slice of the community of experts who serve Oregonians and collaborate with people throughout the world.

By Nick Houtman

Nick Houtman is director of research communications at OSU and edits Terra, a world of research and creativity at Oregon State University. He has experience in weekly and daily print journalism and university science writing. A native Californian, he lived in Wisconsin and Maine before arriving in Corvallis in 2005.