PENDLETON — A federal agricultural research station in Northeast Oregon plans to hire three new scientists to help the region’s wheat farmers become more resilient to climate change.
The Columbia Plateau Conservation Research Center, north of Pendleton, is part of the USDA Agricultural Research Service and focuses on improving dryland farming in areas of the Pacific Northwest that receive less than 18 inches of rain annually.
Earlier this year, Congress passed the 2019 agriculture appropriations bill that included an additional $2 million for the station — roughly double its previous budget.
It is a welcome change of fortune for the center, which faced potentially deep cuts in 2016 and 2017. Instead, the USDA will add positions and expand lab space in Pendleton, with the goal to find new solutions for growers as seasons shift and summers get hotter.
“There are new challenges, all together, that we face,” said Dan Long, station director and research leader. “Obviously, the growers have asked us to do work to help them in these challenging times. We intend to do that with these dollars.”
Long said the station will hire an agricultural economist, crop physiologist and bioinformatics technician to join the five scientists already on staff, experimenting with things such as cover crops, alternative crops and methods to retain soil moisture without access to irrigation.
Profitability is at the heart of every management decision farmers make, Long said, and the station economist will help them to examine their bottom line. The crop physiologist will look specifically at heat stress in plants, and what sorts of biochemical changes are happening in the field.
Bioinformatics is an interdisciplinary field that works with software tools to better understand biological data. Long said this position will complement the other scientists and their research.
Long said the USDA also intends to collaborate more with Oregon State University’s Columbia Basin Agricultural Research Station — a similar but separate research station that operates out of the same building on Tubbs Ranch Road.
The station, commonly known as CBARC, has even more expertise to offer, including agronomy, plant pathology and weed science. About $450,000 of the USDA funding would be passed through to CBARC under a new cooperative agreement with the university, Long said.
“More can be done if we work together, rather than separately,” Long said. He expects an agreement in place by July.
Wheat is the dominant dryland crop in northeast and north-central Oregon, with a combined 777,501 acres harvested across eight counties in 2017, according to the latest USDA Census of Agriculture.
With such little moisture, Long said growers have few other options available to them. But research at the two stations could pin down new rotational and cover crops to keep soils healthy, curb erosion and break up disease cycles.
“We’ve heard pretty strongly from growers in the lower rainfall areas they would like us to work on cover crops and alternative crops,” Long said. “We have learned from attending field days in June that crops like winter peas are drought-resistant, and they fix nitrogen.”
Nathan Rea, of H.T. Rea Farming Corp. in Milton-Freewater, serves as chairman of the grower liaison committee that works with both research stations. The committee was instrumental in reaching out to members of Oregon’s congressional delegation to secure funding for the USDA center.
Rea said Democratic Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley and Republican Rep. Greg Walden were all champions for the station’s funding. Merkley, in particular, played an important role as the top-ranking Democrat on the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, he said.
The research ultimately will help dryland farmers remain profitable, Rea said.
“It’s a very important long-term benefit,” he said. “The research that they’re doing has a direct impact on every grower.”