The 1,400-mile field trip

It was a road trip like none other: One van, five days, six women, 18 runaway watermelons, 1,400 miles and a flat tire.

On July 21, I and five other Oregon State University professional faculty members set off from Corvallis to tour seven of OSU’s 11 agricultural research centers and see their scientists at work in the field. We wanted to get a firsthand understanding of what they do so we could more effectively promote their work.

Kate Cusack, OSU’s director of federal relations, digs potatoes at the Hermiston Agricultural Research and Extension Center. Photo by Betsy Hartley.

Kate Cusack, OSU’s director of federal relations, digs potatoes at the Hermiston Agricultural Research and Extension Center. (photo: Betsy Hartley)

The crew consisted of Jan Auyong, assistant director of the Agricultural Experiment Station; Kate Cusack, OSU’s director of federal relations; Betsy Hartley, director of external relations and marketing for the College of Agricultural Sciences; Luanne Lawrence, vice president of University Advancement; Melody Oldfield, director of University Marketing; and me, a public service communications specialist in the Extension and Experiment Station Communications department.

We traveled to berry fields, cherry and pear orchards, potato patches, wheat fields, and mixed conifer and sage rangelands and learned about OSU’s latest research until our heads were bursting with facts about irrigation, phytonutrients, the love life of aphids and the contents of cows’ stomachs.

Research centers we visited included ones in Aurora, Hood River, Union and Klamath Falls. In Hermiston, entomologist Silvia Rondon showed us her lab where tuberworm eggs incubated in a row of clear, plastic shoeboxes like babies in bassinets at a hospital maternity ward.

“They are very picky. If they’re not fed every day, they don’t lay eggs,” Rondon said of the potato pest. She’s studying how the insect survives during the winter, how cultural and chemical practices can control it, and how outbreaks can be predicted based on historical temperature data.

As we said our farewells, we were given nearly 20 Hermiston watermelons to distribute along our route. They were soon rolling around in the van like bowling balls.

That afternoon, like the parting of the Red Sea, the road ahead of us opened up a blond ocean of wheat as we approached the Pendleton branch.

OSU wheat breeder Jim Peterson (right)explains his research to Melody Oldfield and Steve Petrie at the Columbia Basin Agricultural Research Center. Photo by Betsy Hartley.

OSU wheat breeder Jim Peterson (right) explains his research to Melody Oldfield and Steve Petrie at the Columbia Basin Agricultural Research Center. (photo: Betsy Hartley)

“Welcome to my office,” said wheat breeder Jim Peterson, standing in a field containing 6,500 experimental plots of wheat. Peterson and his team combine genes from breeding stocks obtained from all over the world to create varieties with desirable characteristics such as disease resistance, high yields and superior milling and baking quality.

The next morning, we set off for the remote Zumwalt Prairie, where OSU is working with The Nature Conservancy to study the impact of grazing on ground-nesting birds, plants, insects and soil. They’ve fenced off plots and stocked them with different quantities of cattle. The goal is to find the optimal number of cattle that will yield sustainable grazing practices on the prairie.

At one point, OSU ecologist Sandy DeBano performed for us her rendition of “Ghost Busters.” DeBano counts and identifies insects on the Zumwalt and elsewhere to understand their ecological roles. She straps onto her back a pack made from duct tape, a backpack frame, a small engine and plastic tubing you might find under your bathroom sink. After a few minutes of sucking up insects in the grass, she poured the contents of her filter onto a tray and pointed out carrion beetles and leafhoppers with infectious enthusiasm.

OSU ecologist Sandy DeBano (left) shows her husband, David Wooster, and Jan Auyong, assistant director of the Oregon Agricultural Experiment Station, an insect she caught at the Zumwalt Prairie. Photo by Betsy Hartley.

OSU ecologist Sandy DeBano (left) shows her husband, David Wooster, and Jan Auyong, assistant director of the Oregon Agricultural Experiment Station, an insect she caught at the Zumwalt Prairie. (photo: Betsy Hartley)

As our day at the Zumwalt ended, we loaded into the van, excited about what we had seen. And then we heard it. The hiss of a flat tire. But with three Ph.D.s among us and the researchers, we were on the road again in about 30 minutes.

Our last stop of the trip was Madras, where Steve James stood beside a dry-erase board in a conference room giving what sounded like a high school sex ed talk, except the subject at hand was aphids, a major pest of vegetable and seed crops. Talking about their reproductive cycle, he explained that the females don’t need a male to reproduce in the summer. But as the cold days of winter approach, they get the urge to snuggle up and mate with their male counterparts. We giggled. We suddenly liked these relatively independent creatures.

As the van headed back to Corvallis, we realized how much we had learned. Luanne Lawrence summed up our feelings: “From this trip, I can put faces to OSU’s agricultural research and tell a story of men and women dedicated to making this world a better place. The experience made me understand more fully how much of a difference these research centers are making. I realized how serious OSU is about helping Oregon address critical and sometimes less visible challenges that impact the livelihood of the thousands in this state.”

~ by Tiffany Woods

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