CORVALLIS - Onion growers in eastern Oregon are adopting a system that saves water and keeps topsoil in place, while producing the highest quality "super colossal" onions. Pear growers in southern Oregon have reduced their use of some of the most toxic pesticides by up to two-thirds, and are still producing top-quality pears.
Range managers throughout the state have controlled the poisonous weed tansy ragwort with insect predators and saved the Oregon livestock industry up to $4.8 million a year.
These are some of the results Oregon growers have achieved in collaboration with Oregon State University researchers, as they test new farming methods including integrated pest management (IPM).
Nationwide, however, IPM has not delivered results comparable to those in Oregon. A recent U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) report indicates that while integrated pest management can result in dramatically reduced pesticide use, the federal government has been lacking in effectively promoting that goal and implementing IPM.
The report notes that even though the use of the riskiest pesticides has declined nationwide, they still make up more than 40 percent of all pesticides used today; and national pesticide use has risen by 40 million pounds since 1992.
"Our food supply remains the safest and highest quality on earth, but we continue to overdose our farmland with powerful and toxic pesticides and to underuse the safe and effective alternatives," charged Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, who commissioned the report.
The GAO report notes that integrated pest management is capable of providing environmental and economic benefits for growers. It specifically highlights apple and pear producers in Oregon and neighboring states who have used insect traps to control the codling moth and subsequently reduced their need for pesticides by as much as 80 percent.
Although Oregon is clearly ahead of the nation, scientists at OSU are taking the Government Accounting Office criticisms seriously.
"We must continue to develop effective alternative practices that will reduce environmental hazards and produce high quality products," said Paul Jepson, a professor of entomology at OSU and new director of OSU's Integrated Plant Protection Center. The IPPC brings together scientists from OSU's Agriculture Experiment Station, OSU Extension Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture and Oregon farmers to help develop agricultural systems that will save water and soil, and reduce pesticides.
In response to the GAO report, the center is putting even more emphasis on integrating research and farming practices to improve Oregon agriculture environmentally and economically.
"The GAO report criticizes agencies for not clearly communicating the goals of IPM," said Jepson. "Our challenge is to greatly improve the communication to and from growers, to learn what works and what doesn't. The work coming from OSU researchers must be adopted in the field, and not simply languish in scientific journals."
In Oregon, growers have found that when they adopt more environmentally benign practices, they can have unexpectedly good results, according to Jepson. For example, a few years ago scientists at OSU's Malheur Experiment Station began testing a new drip irrigation system to replace old ditches that wasted water and washed soil and fertilizer into streams. The new system cut water and fertilizer use by half, kept topsoil in place and protected water quality.
In addition, the new system produced crops of very large onions, rated "super colossal" and highly valued by the restaurant industry and food processors.
OSU researchers in Malheur next tested straw mulch and found that it successfully held soil in place and kept the ground moist with less irrigation. In addition, and unexpectedly, the scientists found that the mulched soil created a home for beneficial beetles and spiders that prey on onion thrips - a notorious pest in commercial onion fields - a discovery that could reduce the need for pesticides.
OSU researchers throughout the state have been working to reduce dependence on broad-spectrum chemical sprays that are toxic to many kinds of organisms, including humans. "Consumers are putting more and more pressure on the industry to change its reliance on chemical pesticides, but they still want a picture-perfect product," said Rick Hilton, entomologist at OSU's Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center, where researchers help pear growers reduce the need for highly toxic pesticides.
Picture perfect pears are an important industry in Oregon, and traditionally they have required lots of chemicals. In recent years, the industry has faced stiff competition from overseas producers, so any new methods that growers adopt must make sense economically as well as environmentally.
Hilton is testing a growth regulator that interferes with the molting of codling moth larvae. Another study used pheromone dispensers to disrupt codling moth mating. These and other methods of integrated pest management have allowed pear growers to reduce their use of organophosphates by two-thirds and reduce all other synthetic pesticides by even more and still produce top-quality pears.
"These and other studies around the state are part of the effort of the IPPC to find alternative farming practices that benefit both the economy and the environment," said Jepson.