November 3, 2009

From Union, we headed south on Interstate-84 to our Malheur station in Ontario, which sits right on the Oregon-Idaho border.  We knew we had arrived, because of the intense aroma of onions in the air – to me an appetizing smell, and the smell of money, when the market for onions is good.  The area is home to a large number of people of Japanese heritage, and over a dinner of mafa chicken and beverages at a Japanese restaurant, we discussed all of the sights we had seen the previous few days, and what lay ahead.  Our faculty and staff at the Malheur station address issues in the area related to production of onions, potatoes, and sugar beets, along with alternative crops that appear to be promising for this area, such as soybeans, asparagus, native wildflower for seed, including those that have medicinal and anti-cancer properties, poplar, and teff (an east African cereal crop that is used to make injera, the pancake like bread in Ethiopian food).

We had a wonderful conversation with Rep. Cliff Bentz, another tremendously thoughtful supporter of education and our research and Extension efforts.  We discussed the investments needed for education and research, and the ever-decreasing state investments, which are beginning to have a significant impact on our college’s ability to be preeminent.  A “slow death by the thousand cuts” as a result of the budget cuts is hampering us. I pointed out that it is unfortunate we pit K-12 versus higher education; in this very competitive era, what we need is to focus on is K-20 education, and for the state to look at education and research as being what will keep Oregon ahead of the pack.  With representatives like Greg Smith and Cliff Bentz, I think support of our educational and research efforts is in good hands.  I only hope the constituents agree and support their efforts.  If the conversations I had with our stakeholders who serve as advisors to the station is any indication, I think Rep. Bentz’s efforts and those of our station faculty and staff are not unappreciated.

The drive east from Ontario to our experiment station at Burns brought us through vistas very different from what we had seen over the previous few days – this is rolling, range country, scrubby and sage brush covered, with the occasional Piñon juniper, which has become a significant, invasive problem in this section of the state.  Much of the land here is owned by the Federal government.  Over a lunch of thick, juicy steaks at the home of the Doverspikes, Susan and Mark, in Burns, I had a chance to discuss with some cattle ranchers the significant challenges our college faces as a result of the economic downturn and the need to transform our structure into a smaller, state-supported footprint. They appreciated my thoughts and vision for our college; their expectations are that it is critical, as we restructure ourselves, that we cannot forget our fundamental mission of teaching, research, and Extension related to food, agriculture, and natural resource systems. The experiment station at Burns lives up to meeting the mission needs, and is another example of the synergy that results from locating land grant faculty and staff along with USDA Agricultural Research Service personnel – each addressing complementary questions related to cattle, forages, nutrition, range, riparian zones, forests, and other questions of relevance to the area, in collaboration with various other Federal (BLM, NRCS) and state agencies.

MadrasMadras – pronounced Mad-Russ in Oregon, and named for the city in southern India, pronounced Mud-Rass – located in central Oregon offers yet another unique ecosystem and habitat for Oregon’s bounty of agriculture. This station is home to research on potatoes, forages and cereal, vegetable seed, grass seed, peppermint, along with other potential new crops. We ate dinner with the stakeholders, many local farmers.

Researcher Steve James

Yet, again, these partners discussed the importance of the work being done by the faculty and staff at the station – for example I was told that research done at the station on carrot seed contributed to a reduction of Nitrogen use by nearly 65%; similarly, research on honey bee responses to aggregation pheromone to increase pollination in carrot seed is being awaited eagerly by the growers, many of whom helped, along with others, to secure extra funding from the legislature for a honey bee faculty position.

CascadesThe return trip to Corvallis – named for “heart of the valley”, according to history books – from Burns takes one through the Cascades, with its gorgeous passes, snow covered peaks, old growth forests, and beautiful vistas. One sees also places where the forests have been clear cut or have burned in multiple fires over the years.  The switchbacks and winding roads reminded me of sections of the Himalayas, which my son-in-law, Andrew Park, and I rode on Royal Enfield Bullet motorcycles.

In my travels around the state, as I have met with our stakeholders, I have tried to articulate the significant challenges we face as a result of the economic downturn, which is requiring us to reconsider how we organize ourselves in a way that allows us to continue to deliver on our mission.  Well into the early 1980s, 100% of funding for land grant institutions such as OSU has come from state and federal sources; however, the percentage of State and Federal support has been declining, to the extent that it amounts to, for Oregon State University, less than 13% today.  This situation has required land grant universities to seek alternative sources of revenue, including ever increasing levels of tuition on students, fees for Extension programming, grants and contracts for research, licensing and royalties from intellectual property, and sale of commodities.

Thus, the new “business plan” for land grant universities is to seek ever increasing proportions of funding from sources that wax and wane based on whatever is in vogue – a business plan that is not sustainable over the long term. This new business plan is forcing our faculty to seek funds from whatever source they can get to support their programs, including in some cases their salaries, which means they will be addressing issues of interest to the funding organization, which may not necessarily jibe with that of our stakeholders.  This situation puts significant strain on our ability to deliver on the land grant mission.

Well into the current fiscal year, we do not have certainty on the budget situation – in part, because of the successful petition drive that has referred the tax increase for a vote in January.  The outcome of that vote will determine the severity of the cuts for our college, which could range from 10% to 20% or even higher.  If it is indeed the latter, it means that potentially of every $5 we will see a reduction of at least $1.  In that scenario, we are looking at a truly significant impact on a college that has been already subjected to a number of budget cuts previously.

The budget cuts, in combination with the new business plan we have to operate under, will require us to do a lot less than we have been able to do, because we will need to have a significantly smaller state-supported footprint.  I have explained the situation to our stakeholders, and said that as we go forward we will need to take a hard and careful look at our college’s organization, including our branch stations, and how we will deliver on our land grant mission.  While our stakeholders understand these truly unusual times require us to be responsive in how we serve our mission, because all issues are local; a few tend to unfortunately take a very local view, rather than a global view. I am gratified, however, that most have said they understand the need for us to be creative at addressing the budget challenges, but hope that we will be creative in meeting their local needs as well.  That is a promise I have made, i.e., we may not have the current organization, nor entities our stakeholders are used to, but we will certainly strive to protect the local interests.  In order to achieve the latter, we will need to rely more and more on our partners and stakeholders, not only for direct support of our programs, but also for their help in articulating to the legislators the local needs in research and Extension, which will make our food and agricultural systems competitive and profitable.

November 2, 2009

Columbia River

Driving east along the Columbia gorge, the beauty of the gorge and the imposing evergreens are a thing of beauty.  Once past Hood River, the imposing Cascades start to flatten out into rolling hills as one enters the Dalles, with its hydroelectric dams on the Columbia River, and the landscape dotted with cherry and pear orchards, along with wind farms that disappear with the hills into the horizon.

Hybrid Poplar Plantation

Further east, one runs into the world’s largest hybrid poplar plantation, which uses state of the art and computerized irrigation and nutrient system through nearly 20,000 miles of irrigation tubing!  The poplars, which were planted for the paper and pulp industry, are now poised to contribute to the renewable energy needs.  Past the town of Boardman with its hybrid poplar plantation, the highway continues to run through the beautiful, rolling hills of the Columbia Basin.  This is “traditional” agricultural country – home to a huge number of wind farms along with an amazing diversity of crops, including wheat, onions, vegetables, specialty seed, potatoes, grass seed, and other species – all of which are being worked on by our faculty and staff at the experiment stations in Hermiston and Pendleton, with significant local support of stakeholders.  The Pendleton station benefits significantly from the presence of an excellent group of USDA Agricultural Research Service scientists who undertake complementary research on soil, carbon and nutrient cycling, and other questions.

Hermiston Cages
Hermiston Cages

What is really cool is that although it is in the eastern part of the state, the station at Hermiston has faculty working on the impact of row crop agricultural practices on salmon.  This latter effort is thanks to the innovative and prescient partnership created by stakeholders such as Bryan Wolfe and others in the Hermiston area along with those that support our experiment station in Newport on the Oregon coast.  South of Interstate-84 in Wasco and Sherman County is the arid, high plains wheat country in the Columbia Basin, uncannily similar to the Kansas countryside where I lived for a few years, including the presence of wind farms with their eerily blinking red lights as we drove through on a beautiful evening lit by a full, China moon!  Rainfall in this part of Oregon ranges from five to 15 inches, and I am told going just a few miles in each direction might mean one less inch of rainfall.  Our partners in Moro support our research efforts with a significant endowment, which is beautifully depicted in a huge mural on the side of the station building.

My wife, Gita, and I participated in the renowned Pendleton Roundup (, which occurs over a few days in September.  Arriving into Pendleton, we saw the town was full of trailers carrying all manner of animals for the rodeo, along with people in their Western gear, huge belt buckles and all.

Speckles and me

I broke down and bought a “Western” belt to go with my orange and black plaid shirt and blue jeans! The OSU dinner at the Hanley was an opportunity for us to meet and greet the large number of our alumni and friends, along with a number of local, state, and federal elected officials. Gita and I had the privilege of meeting OSU basketball Coach Craig Robinson, brother of Michelle Obama, who as the after dinner speaker regaled us with stories of the winning 2008-2009 season. Of course there were the mandatory questions and quips about being the First Brother-in-Law.  The next morning after breakfast, we did a radio show and got ready for the parade.  Riding a horse in the parade was awesome.  I have ridden horses before, but I was apprehensive that my horse might somehow read the motto of the Pendleton Roundup – “Let ‘er Buck” – and start bucking.  Luckily, my horse, Speckles, was a quiet, well behaved, 20-plus year old, and belonged to Kyle, a young son of one of my Extension colleagues, Matt Liscom. The nice thing was Matt stayed with me.  With bravado I was saying to everyone – “well, I ride a Harley-Davidson, and riding a horse is no different” – but deep inside my heart I hoped the horse wouldn’t take off or start bucking!

PendletonRoundupThe loud boom of a canon, which startled all of the horses, but luckily no mishaps, was the signal that the parade had started.  As the group of 4-H riders, OSU President Ed Ray, Extension Director and Vice Provost Scott Reed, and the rest of us on horses, along with the President’s wife, Beth, and Gita riding in a wagon, went along the downtown streets, it was cool to see people yell and acknowledge OSU and the Beavers! Go Beavs – yelled the people lined up and we responded similarly.  The day included attending the rodeo with Virginia Tubbs, the Grand Matriarch of Pendleton, and being her guests at a dinner.  The rodeo itself was pretty awesome – bucking horse and bull riding, roping calves and steers, bareback horse racing by the Native Americans, wild cow milking, and other events.  The Pendleton Roundup lived up to its reputation as a fun event depicting the frontier life of the past.

East of Columbia Basin, one drives through the gorgeous, glaciated Blue Mountains, with its own, very unique alpine trees such as Ponderosa pine, Piñon juniper, Lodgepole pine, Western larch, and others, but not as imposing as the really huge, old growth Douglas fir in the cascades or coastal range mountains – may be in part due to the significantly lower rainfall this section of the state receives, along with fires.  We drive across rivers with names like Snake, John Day, Grande Ronde, Powder, and Malheur.  Our college offers an Agricultural Program at Eastern Oregon University in LaGrande, with a growing number of students in majors of huge relevance to the eastern part of the state – Range Ecology and Management, Agribusiness Management, Crop & Soil Science, Environmental and Economic Policy and Management, and Natural Resources, along with a number of relevant minors.  Speaking to the smart and thoughtful students, I discovered the program is hugely attractive and successful, and includes internship opportunities as part of the educational program, and that the graduates are placed very well.  What was highly gratifying was to discover amongst the students I met, the second generation of students coming into the program, following their parents, and younger siblings following older ones.  The program is also attracting students from neighboring states and overseas; and I met a student from Nepal.

While the OSU Ag Program at EOU is immensely successful and popular, we are losing money.  We are engaged in conversations with the administration of EOU to ensure that the costs of the program are met equitably.  These conversations are critical in light of the significant budget challenges we face.  While at the campus of EOU, I had occasion to inaugurate my colleague, Lynn Ketchum’s, touring exhibit of photographs about food and agriculture from our magazine, Oregon’s Agriculture Progress – Savory Images –  (, and got to meet Rep. Greg Smith, an excellent and thoughtful supporter of education and agriculture.  Greg’s support, along with that of others, to provide for a tax increase have mitigated the significant impact of the budget cuts on our research and Extension efforts.  Unfortunately, this tax increase might be in jeopardy, come January 26.  I hope the local constituents see this sort of support as being important for our state’s well being, and more immediately for the well being of our educational, research and Extension programs that have significant local impact in eastern Oregon.

Red Barn at EOARC, Union
Red Barn at EOARC, Union

A number of the students in our Agriculture Program at EOU seek experiential opportunities at our experiment station in Union, which was established over 100 years ago and focuses on range, forestry, flora and fauna of wildlands, forages, beef cattle, nutrition, and other issues of relevance to eastern Oregon.  The breadth of research is amazing – everything from beef nutrition to sage brush to range/forest interactions to the birds of the region to wolf predation on cattle to impact of fire to impact of cattle grazing on mountain streams to grazed riparian pastures to the floristics and faunistics of the Great Basin desert, to name just a few.  All of these efforts are having significant impact locally.  Our partners in the Union area, like those at the other locations, are highly supportive of the local efforts, and I hope they will continue to support our efforts at reorganizing our college.

I have noticed an interesting conundrum as I meet and speak with our partners and stakeholders.  While everyone is highly supportive of our efforts, many are also against the tax increase that was passed during the last legislative session. I have stated to the that the tax increase being voted down will seriously and immediately impact our college, but that the long term impact on our educational and research efforts are going to be significantly impaired.  I hope that the voters and our partners and stakeholders think of the potentially devastating impact on our state.

November 1, 2009

Note: Over the last three months since my arrival in Corvallis, I have visited our academic departments and traveled to every one of branch experiment stations around Oregon, some of which I have described in earlier postings.  The actual trips described below occurred over a few separate occasions in different directions, but in these three consecutive posts I have tried to stitch the trips together for the purpose of continuity!

“Go West, young man, and grow up with the country,” said Horace Greeley.  In Oregon, one really has to go east to see the West!

Benny Beaver

Since my arrival at Oregon State University almost three months ago, I have traveled – thanks to my colleagues, Stella, Larry, Betsy, and Todd – several thousand miles within Oregon, learning about our college’s huge presence throughout the state and its food and agricultural enterprise, and along the way met students, alumni, stakeholders, friends, and state and federal legislators.  I have partaken the bounty of our state – from the amazing array of fruit, vegetables, and nuts such as cherries and pears, Marion berries, Purple Pelisse potatoes, and hazelnuts to wines such as pinots, cabs, and syrahs to grain and meat to oyster shooters, mussels, salmon, Albacore tuna to artisan cheeses, and beef steaks to lamb to name just a few. Oregon produces well over two hundred different commodities, many organized under commodity commissions or grower associations.

Grapes on the vine

The valleys west of the Cascades, Willamette, Rogue, and Umqua – each with its very own, unique microclimate, varying in the native fauna and flora, home to a bewildering array of agricultural enterprises such as vineyards and wineries, specialty seed, grass seed, fruit orchards, berries, hop trellises, nurseries, artisanal cheeses, beers, and on and on.  It is the unique soils and microclimates, along with elevational differences that make the valleys so productive, and allow all the different kinds of food and agricultural systems to thrive, including organic, sustainable, conventional, etc.  Some of the research efforts are undertaken at our academic departments in Corvallis, and at our branch experiment stations in Aurora and Medford.

Of course, not everything is perfect in the paradise one sees driving down Interstate-5.  The economic downturn has affected many of the agricultural enterprises, and controversies abound: profitability; the grass seed business and nursery business are off almost 50%, imposing significant and immediate stresses on the producers and their families and employees, and more broadly on the state’s economy; environmental concerns, organic versus sustainable versus conventional; GMOs, canola, burning, pesticides, environmental impacts, etc.  Our faculty play a significant role in providing scientific clarity to complex issues, and help focus on outcomes that are in the best interest of the agricultural enterprises themselves and ultimately on society.

East of the Cascades is, as the locals say, God’s Country – rolling hills, high plains desert, huge basins.  It is beautiful country.  Dry to very dry.  Wheat country.  Range country.  Cattle country.  Here, again, controversies abound – mostly about water, federal land, grazing rights. Farmers and ranchers alike face significant challenges, not unlike what is seen in the valleys west of the Cascades. Faculty at our stations play a significant role in providing scientific clarity to complex issues, and undertake the research and Extension efforts needed to help producers, communities, and residents.

Downtown Portland is home to the only urban experiment station in the United States – the Food Innovation Center, which is a partnership between our college and the Oregon Department of Agriculture.  This one-of-a-kind station works very closely with the food processing industry on such areas as market access and development, economics and marketing, consumer sensory testing, packaging and shelf life, processing and packaging, product development, and the use of Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) in the food industry. The FIC has state-of-the-art facilities, including a kitchen that the food industry can use to develop and test products with the help of our faculty and staff. A number of products in the market place, such as beverages, chips, and other products, are the result of the unique partnership between our faculty and staff and the food industry.

Chef Eric Jenkins

Astoria, on the mouth of the Columbia River on the Pacific Ocean, is the home to our Seafood Lab and Seafood Consumer Center, which are dedicated to discovering new value added uses of marine organisms, such as surimi from whiting fish, oyster shooters, albacore tuna, to name a few; and researchers are determining how to deal with food safety in seafood, population genetics and origin of salmon. Chef Eric Jenkins who dishes up gourmet dishes and lessons at the seafood school created a wonderful dinner of honey mustard marinated salmon, rice pilaf, and salad, preceded by appetizers that included smoked albacore tuna, mussels, oysters, and barbecued squid.

Tillamook Cheese Factory

Driving south from Astoria enroute to Newport is Tillamook – home of the famous dairies and cheese.  We stopped for Tillamook ice cream and grilled cheese sandwiches.  The drive along the coast is wonderful – the Oregon coast is like no other that I have seen in my travels.  The little towns along the way are picturesque – these are places I need to come back to with my wife.

Oyster Seed
Oyster Seed

Further south is Newport – home to our Coastal Marine Experiment Station, the Marine Mammal Institute, and the Hatfield Marine Science Center.

Here our faculty undertake research and Extension efforts on various aspects of the biology of various marine species such as whales, salmon, oysters, and others, along with marketing and economic analyses of the seafood industry.

Fish hospital

Newport is also home to an “ornamental fish hospital”.  The economic downturn has had a significant impact in this section of the state, and the fishermen are concerned as well about policies and regulations that place significant burden on their livelihoods.  I had a chance to listen to people like Sen. Betsy Johnson and Rep. Jean Cowan, who are both huge supporters of our college and efforts in Astoria and Newport; at dinner with other stakeholders, which included one on a boat – The Marine Discovery Tours boat operated by Fran and Don Mathews – I heard support for our efforts and concerns about the impact of the budget cuts on our presence.  These are passionate people and truly committed to our college’s efforts.

The return to Corvallis was through the Coastal Range in the dark, in rain.  The little I could see out of the window of the car suggested some mountains with beautiful, old growth Douglas firs or the scar of clear cut or fires.  It’s a trip I will need to do on my motorcycle during the daytime in late spring or summer.