CORVALLIS - Sustainability experiments tied to dwindling profits and environmental concerns are planting seeds of change in one of Oregon's largest industries, Oregon State University scientists say.
"We have a lot of big problems in agriculture," said horticulture professor John Luna in a recent issue of Oregon's Agricultural Progress magazine, published by OSU's Agricultural Experiment Station. "There's a lack of profitability. What about losing farm families? What about keeping salmon in our streams (while producing food and fiber)?"
There may be a solution, says OSU soil scientist Richard Dick. "Sustainability is the middle ground that seeks any technology that maximizes yield and profits while maintaining the natural resource base and maintaining environmental quality," he explained.
The article spotlights farmers, researchers and extension agents across the state who are collaborating on experiments with crops that range from vegetables to wine grapes, grain and dairy cattle.
One example: Seven farms, from Corvallis in the south to Mt. Angel in the north, have formed an organization called the Willamette Valley Vegetable Growers' Association and are testing a technique called "strip-till."
Instead of plowing entire fields, they break up the soil only in eight-inch-wide seed beds. The ground in between is covered with the dead remains of a "cover crop" such as wheat or clover planted after the previous harvest.
"The usual practice - what we call conventional tillage - is to use various tools to bury all weeds and crop residues with six to 10 passes through a field," explained Luna, who is working with the vegetable growers.
"We figure this (strip-till) is a one-pass operation," said Carl Hendricks, a second generation grower whose farm is between Stayton and Scio.
According to Luna, the potential benefits of strip-till include:
- Reducing erosion and improving soil fertility while reducing the need for expensive fertilizers.
- Crowding and shading out weeds with the cover crops, reducing the need for expensive herbicides.
- Reducing the need for irrigation water.
- Cutting fuel costs and soil compaction.
Dick and several OSU graduate students and colleagues are collaborating with some of the same farmers. "Basically we're looking at the long-term impact of farming practices on soils with in-depth studies of soil biology," Dick said.
Six farmers "donate" fields and split them in half. On one half they use conventional tillage. Crops grow in the summer, there's some tillage in the fall and the land sits bare in the winter. On the other half of their fields the farmers use self-designed reduced tillage systems in combination with winter cover crops.
"The non-traditional systems should improve soil structure and biology because of less disturbance, cover crop root activity and residue incorporation in the spring," said Dick. "Cover crops capture residual fertilizers in the fall to maintain groundwater quality and add organic matter that provides 'glue' for soils to create more air spaces and improve water penetration and storage.
"Farmers have told us they may be able to irrigate less in the summer after using cover crops," he added, "and they use less fuel because there's less compaction and they can use a higher gear for tillage operations."
Sustainable agriculture experimentation has also reached Oregon's wine industry. Carmo Candolfi-Vasconcelos, a wine grape specialist with the OSU Extension Service, notes that grape growers are experimenting with "integrated production," or IP for short.
"It's a whole-farm concept modeled after a system Europe has had for a number of years," explained Al MacDonald, owner of Seven Springs Vineyards near Salem. "We do allow the use of chemicals but they are restricted. No applications of broad spectrum herbicides or pesticides."
There also are guidelines for fertilization and other practices.
"(The approach) saves growers money, increases quality and is environmentally responsible," said MacDonald, noting that a new marketing program started this year will identify for consumers wines made from grapes grown with IP.
Other examples of sustainable agriculture experiments:
- In Marion County, dairy farmers are using manure to grow feed for their animals while tracking the precise "nutrient flow" on their farms.
- In the Columbia Basin grain growers are testing direct-till, where seeds go into untilled ground that still holds the remains of the previous crop. A major goal is to reduce soil erosion that is chipping away at farming in the relatively dry, windswept basin.
- In the Portland area, nursery plant growers are learning more about biological control agents available for pest problems.
In the future, Oregonians may see "a patchwork of approaches across the landscape," predicts Marion County extension agent Dan McGrath.
"We're talking about what is the right balance of three pillars - one, economic viability; two, environmental soundness; and three, social equity," McGrath said. "There may be several ways to get at that balance."
A copy of the Spring 1999 issue of Oregon's Agricultural Progress is available at no charge by writing: Oregon's Agricultural Progress, Extension and Station Communications, 422 Kerr Administration, OSU, Corvallis, OR 97331-2119. Phone: 1-800-561-6719. The magazine is on the WWW at eesc.orst.edu.