The Columbia Basin Agricultural Research Center has seen plenty of turnover in just over two years.
Three longtime scientists are now gone from the Pendleton station, including former director Steve Petrie, who left in 2013 for a job in the private sector. Agronomist Dan Ball and plant pathologist Richard Smiley also retired, taking decades of knowledge and experience with them.
Local wheat farmers depend on CBARC — run by the Oregon State University College of Agricultural Sciences — for the latest information on new crop varieties and growing techniques that can help them save money and increase production.
After losing so many familiar faces, university and industry leaders say it will take time to forge new relationships, but they remain committed to working together.
Blake Rowe, CEO of the Oregon Wheat Growers League, wrote a column for the October edition of Oregon Wheat Magazine reminding growers they too have a role in outreach.
“There’s new people, new personalities. It’s just a lot of adjustment to a lot of new stuff,” Rowe said in an interview with the East Oregonian. “You have to expect these growing pains.”
Some of the new researchers at CBARC are not only from out of town, but out of the country: Valtcho Jeliazkov, who replaced Petrie as director, grew up in Bulgaria, while Judit Barroso, who filled Ball’s position, earned her doctorate at the Institute of Agrarian Science in Madrid, Spain.
Darren Padget, a Sherman County wheat farmer and chairman of the Oregon Wheat Commission, said it’s crucial for CBARC staff to continue meeting with growers in the field to better understand the region’s unique climate and cropping systems.
“That’s probably the biggest concern I have,” Padget said. “There’s a lot to learn, and they really have to lean on the growers to understand it.”
About half of Oregon’s wheat assessment — every grower is assessed a nickel per bushel — goes toward research with OSU labs and extension. The assessment was just a little more than $2 million in 2014, though drought and lower yields are anticipated for 2015.
As money gets tight, Padget said every dollar becomes closely scrutinized. And like anything else, change can lend itself to uncertainty.
“We just want to make sure those dollars are targeted where you get the greatest rate of return,” Padget said. “We’re constantly providing input on what we want.”
In addition to Pendleton, CBARC operates a field station in Moro not far from Padget’s farm. Erling Jacobsen, the Moro farm manager, also recently retired. Padget is part of the committee charged with finding his replacement.
To OSU’s credit, Padget said he feels the university has been receptive to the growers’ needs.
“I believe there’s a lot of hard decisions to be made in front of us,” he said. “We don’t have an endless supply of money.”
CBARC did get a welcome boost from the Wheat Growers League in August after the organization purchased 57 acres adjacent to the Pendleton station, and leased them back to the center for research. It’s the first CBARC has added land since 1930.
Steve Clark, vice president of university relations at OSU, said the college recognizes the turnover at CBARC and the need to foster new strategic partnerships.
The CBARC Liaison Committee will meet at 8 a.m. Nov. 19, hosting an open house for growers to come tour the station and meet the new staff in Pendleton.
“That will be a great opportunity for the university to listen and learn,” Clark said.
Since coming on board almost a year ago, Jeliazkov said he’s met with 20 individual farmers along with the Wheat Growers League and Wheat Commission. In every meeting, he said he has two main questions: What are problems facing farms, and how can CBARC help?
Though every farm is different, Jeliazkov said growers seem most interested in breeding new wheat varieties, followed closely by weed control, applying fertilizers and herbicides in drought and testing the benefit of cover crops.
Jeliazkov said the former scientists had great credibility with the growers, and they look forward to establishing that for themselves.
“It will take time,” he said. “New people bring new expertise, and new ideas.”
Contact George Plaven at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-966-0825.