Don Wysocki, associate Professor of Extension soil science at the OSU Columbia Basin Agricultural Research Center, points out the healthy acres of neatly planted rows of canola, left, and camelina.
Faculty research assistant Nick Sirovatka holds out his hand to reveal what camelina seeds look like.
At the OSU Columbia Basin Agricultural Research Center, faculty research assistant Nick Sirovatka holds a bundle of dried Camelina in his arms to show what it looks like after being harvested.
Don Wysocki, explains in detail how their no-till direct seed grain drill operates.
Viewed in his rearview mirror while driving out into the fields, Dr. Don Wysocki watched the changes in the weather patterns prior to a scheduled seeding last week. The planting had to be canceled due to the increment weather. Conditions were too harsh for the procedure to take place.
When Steve Petrie goes for a weekend drive in Eastern Oregon, he doesn?t just see endless fields.
?I?m looking at the crop, looking at the condition of the crop,? he said, adding he?ll sometimes quiz his children on what they?re looking at. ?My kids will always tell you, ?Dad?s always talking about the crops while we?re in the car.? ?
The reason is simple, Petrie said: ?I definitely enjoy my job.?
Petrie works as superintendent of the Columbia Basin Agricultural Research Center in Pendleton. The facility operates under Oregon State University, but shares offices and lab space with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Petrie?s research focuses on soil. He loves what he does, and he?s not alone. Each of the staff at the facility share a passion for their work, often working in collaboration with each other. Each is quick to praise their colleagues.
Studying soil nutrients and the causes of soil erosion might seem abstract to the average person, but Petrie said he doesn?t need to tell growers why it?s important. His ultimate goal is to help farmers become more profitable with better yields, and prevent other factors that might take away from that ? like soil erosion.
Not surprisingly, farmers are among the biggest supporters of their work, Petrie said.
?The growers recognize the importance of research,? he said. ?We don?t have to convince them.?
Petrie shares that sense of urgency, pointing to the resource that drives it all: soil.
?The importance of soil is overlooked,? he said. ?We don?t think about food production as a society. It?s just a given. And yet, that all depends on soil.?
Like agriculture itself, research at the facility is an ongoing process. Three experiments even date back as far as 1930.
On a recent overcast, bitterly cold morning, researchers Don Wysocki and Nick Sirovatka ventured to a nearby field to add to one. The two planned to plant a sample of camelina ? a crop often used for the production of oils and biofuels ? on a 40-foot plot. But as Wysocki stepped outside, the hint of raindrops told him they?d have to wait. They decided to go out for a demo run instead.
Wysocki crept down a gravel road in a white pickup truck. Sirovatka followed in a tractor, pulling a red direct-seed grain drill. The piece of equipment was designed by the OSU staff here, and purchased 10 years ago. As water droplets collected on Wysocki?s windshield, he squinted out the window again.
?You wouldn?t plant today unless you absolutely had to,? he said.
Later in the morning, Wysocki and Sirovatka walked to another field where camelina has already sprouted. Sirovatka held a sample in his hands, the fully grown product grouped in a bunch like a bouquet of flowers.
The crop is one of the alternative crops the center emphasizes in its research. In addition to extra profits in some cases, those smaller ventures can also replenish soil for bigger, more profitable crops like wheat, said Stephen Machado, an agronomist at the facility.
Machado joined the staff eight years ago, after studying and working at Texas A&M University. That?s where he jokingly says he picked up his ?Texas accent? ? in fact, Machado?s speech reflects his Zimbabwean heritage. He first moved to the United States in 1993 before finding his way to Pendleton.
?I think the good thing about working here is that you?re not alone,? Machado said. ?We?ve got 10 scientists here, and they all have different expertise. .... Everybody?s involved.?
For Wysocki, his job as scientist and outreach specialist requires him mostly to be a liaison between the research center and the public, including growers. But that can take other forms. Last May, Wysocki helped at the Umatilla-Morrow Education Service District?s watershed field days. He showed children a two-foot layer of ash in the ground from the eruption of Mount Mazama ? the cataclysmic event that formed what?s now Crater Lake. Petrie said many participants found it to be the ?highlight of the day.?
?It?s a phenomenal story,? Wysocki said of the demonstration. ?It?s easy to keep their interest when they can put their hands in it and feel it. Then when they learn it?s 7,000 years old, they?re even more excited.?
Petrie said work at the agricultural research facility varies tremendously throughout the year. One of his priorities now involves barley, Petrie said ? maximizing its yields, and exploring its possible benefits at lowering cholesterol through the beta-glucan compound contained in it. Beta-glucan is also found in oat. But the trick, Petrie said, is making barley a practical food item. Now the crop is mainly used to ?make beer or feed the cows,? he added.
A number of researchers pointed to the relationship with local growers as the best part of their jobs. Petrie is one of them, and he said the respect is mutual. While he enjoys the comfort of a stable job, farmers deal daily with the uncertainty of countless factors out of their control. An ailing economy and volatile price trends recently haven?t made that any easier, he added.
?It?s certainly a challenge for wheat growers right now,? Petrie said. ?I admire growers who put up with that risk. They have to be optimistic that they will survive.?