PENDLETON - Dick Smiley isn't so smiley when he talks of the uncertain future for Eastern Oregon wheat production.
"Changes in the cropping system are inevitable, and we don't know where they will lead us," said Smiley. The Oregon State University plant pathologist is superintendent of the Columbia Basin Agricultural Research Center, operated by OSU and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service.
What is about to happen to eastern Oregon wheat production will affect soil erosion, the navigability of the Columbia River and the economics of agriculture and shipping from eastern Oregon to Portland, he said. The situation is complex.
First, the government has started to knock the props out from under wheat price supports, which growers used to keep going when years are bad. The resulting price stability and method for calculating support payments encouraged them to perpetuate a wheat-fallow rotation, popular in the driest areas for more than a century.
Now, many growers in the driest areas are looking to switch to annual cropping, a standard practice in areas of higher rainfall. A crop every year would protect the fragile soil and reduce erosion.
But where annual rainfall is as low as 10 inches, annual cropping poses new types of risks. Instead of the moisture-conserving "dust mulch" during the year without crops, growers would have annual crop residues that provide an ideal site for diseases and insects to survive and grow.
"Without fallow - without the year of rest to break disease cycles - we get a wider spectrum of pathogens and disease problems," Smiley said. "We have no wheat varieties resistant to all the diseases and no effective chemical control strategies against many of them."
Most growers have not switched from the traditional wheat-fallow rotation system, which started about 100 years ago when settlers found that annual wheat production was a bad idea and that they could reduce risk by planting every other year. And the government support programs encouraged those habits. But that behavior pattern will change. With the government price supports scheduled to end by 2002, growers will concentrate on cleansing their soils, Smiley said.
Growers are now reaching a yield plateau. Wheat varieties can't be genetically improved much more. Growers can't beneficially apply any more nitrogen. The low-rainfall land is fragile. And societal changes encourage stabilizing agriculture production by doing away with commodity subsidies.
Growers must maintain profitability over the long run and are groping for ways to do that.
"The problem around here is that there is almost no crop with the same profit potential as wheat, and you need a three-year crop rotation to really rest the land and break disease cycles," said Smiley.
The way Smiley figures it, small grains - annual cereal crops - are a good bet for growers in the region. Lately, he and colleagues from OSU and the USDA Agricultural Research Service have been working with growers who have six to 12 years of experience with cereal grain cropping systems to see what combination of crops have the most sustainable profit potential and are environmentally sound.
"Our plots in which we grow annual winter wheat have 20 percent higher long-term yields than wheat-fallow cropping systems," Smiley said.
The annual crops only yield 60 percent as well as the crop produced after a year of fallow. But 60-percent crops each of two years is more than one 100 percent crop every two years. With annual cropping, growers have extra planting and harvesting costs. However, they do save summer fallowing costs, including weeding four to five times a year and stirring the fallow soil with a chisel plow.
"Conservation and economic issues will drive annual cropping," Smiley said. "Society will push us to reduce summer fallow. People are concerned about blowing dust and erosion along rivers, streams and roadsides. They see how continual erosion requires dredging of the Columbia River to continue to allow cargo ships to move up and down the river.
"Dredging is a big economic and ecological issue," Smiley added. "Where do you dump all the river-bottom soil? How do you pay for it?"
"Of all the options we've tested so far, annual cropping with wheat seems the most promising for the driest areas," Smiley said. "But we need to improve the wheats, so they have better resistance to root diseases. We need continued research to find out which wheat varieties are best."