Lavern Weber's Excellent Adventure

Lavern Weber's Excellent Adventure header image
On a recent quest, Lavern Weber drove the equivalent of Portland to Chicago. He never left Oregon. But he got what he was after.

Ahoy, mateys. All ashore who're going ashore. Damn the jackrabbits and tumbleweeds, full speed ahead.

Well, O.K., those weren't Lavern Weber's exact words when he set off recently on a voyage to destinations a lot of Oregonians probably don't even know exist. But this is as true as the trade winds, as trustworthy as the lights of the Southern Cross: Weber is the skipper-well, O.K., the superintendent-of the only branch of the Oregon Agricultural Experiment Station where you can hear waves and sea lions, sniff salty air and seaweed.

On the April morning he revved up his Ford Taurus, pulled onto Highway 20 and headed inland from Oregon State University's Coastal Oregon Marine Experiment Station at Newport he was sailing, figuratively speaking, into unfamiliar waters. It wasn't golden doubloons but a siren of another sort-information-luring him away from the blue Pacific.

"The dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences had asked me to serve on his advisory council, and the Oregon Agricultural Experiment Station is headquartered in the college," recalls Weber. "The marine branch experiment station where I work is a little different from the other branch stations. So to serve on the advisory council, I felt I needed to know more about the other stations."

Road trip.

Man walking to his car.

Lavern Weber at OSU's Coastal Oregon Marine Experiment Station at Newport, where he's superintendent. In April, Weber set out to learn more about OSU's other branch experiment stations. First he traveled a "northern loop" east through the Columbia Gorge to the Idaho border and back west through Burns. Then he took a "southern and central loop" through Medford, Klamath Falls and Madras. Photo: Bob Rost

Man standing in front of the ocean.

Photo illustration: Bob Rost and Tom Weeks

Actually, his plan to visit the superintendents of all the other branches of the Oregon Agricultural Experiment Station "on their turf" turned into two road trips.

"First I took the northern loop. Then, the next week, a southern and central loop," he explains. "If you want to know how far it is I can tell you—1,900 miles the way I went."

You can trace the ancestry of Oregon's branch experiment stations back 110 years. President Grover Cleveland signed the Hatch Act in 1887. It provided annual funds to establish agricultural research facilities in every state. The facilities were to be headquartered at the country's land-grant colleges, set up during Abraham Lincoln's presidency to make sure "common" Americans had access to higher education. The Oregon Agricultural Experiment Station was created in 1888 at Oregon Agricultural College in Corvallis (now OSU).

Today professors on the OSU campus, in many disciplines, conduct research funded through the Agricultural Experiment Station. They also teach undergraduate and graduate students to help develop a new generation to keep us fed and clothed.

But through the decades Oregon, like other states, has developed a network of branch experiment stations around the state (some are called research and extension centers). Scientists permanently assigned to these facilities do on-the-spot studies tied to the soils, climates, economies and other characteristics of various regions. Campus-based scientists also do experiments at branch stations.

"I left on the northern loop on a Wednesday evening," Weber recalls, adding that his spouse, Pat Lewis, a zoologist, took some vacation time so she could go with him and see parts of Oregon not on her usual pathways.

An orchard with Mount Hood in the background. Shiny red apples.

At OSU's Mid-Columbia Research and Extension Center at Hood River, scientists search for better ways to grow and store fruits such as apples, pears and cherries. Photo: Tom Gentle

Photo: Extension and Experiment Station Communications

The first port of call was the North Willamette Agricultural Research and Extension Center near Aurora, 25 minutes south down Interstate 5 from the heart of Portland. But nature scuttled the plan. The center's superintendent, Ron Mobley, was stuck in dry dock (home sick). The determined Weber set up a rendezvous with Mobley later, on the OSU campus, and got the information he wanted.

The staff at the North Willamette branch station, he learned, works on horticultural crops, including vegetables, strawberries, caneberries and one of Oregon's hottest industries-greenhouse and nursery crops worth about $420 million a year at the farm gate.

A lot of the center's work helps growers produce better quality crops, at lower costs, and with reduced environmental impact, explained Mobley. "Often the quality or form of a product must be changed to meet the demands of domestic or foreign customers," he noted.

Next, Weber's itinerary took him up Interstate 5 past Portland and through the Columbia Gorge.

"I didn't realize how large it was," he recalls of his arrival at OSU's fruit tree-covered Mid-Columbia Agricultural Research and Extension Center at Hood River. Scientists at the station search for better ways to grow pears, apples and cherries around Hood River and The Dalles. They also help orchardists in a high-stakes struggle with pests.

"I was impressed with their storage work, too," says Weber. "While I was there a worker came in with a pear to show Gene [Mielke, station superintendent] how long it was lasting." The station helped pioneer fruit storage rooms with finely controlled temperature and atmospheric conditions. These innovations are giving growers more marketing options and giving consumers better quality fruit over a longer period of time.

Back in his vessel (the Taurus), Weber continued east along the Columbia River on Interstate 84, sailing single-mindedly toward the Hermiston Agricultural Research and Extension Center. The station is in an arid region dominated by massive center pivot-irrigated circles of cropland.

Man pointing while standing in a sugar beet field. Man wearing cowboy hat walking among cattle.

Clint Shock, the enthusiastic superintendent of the Malheur Experiment Station near Ontario, shows off sugar beet variety trials. Photo: Bob Rost

Marty Vavra is superintendent of the Eastern Oregon Agricultural Research Center, headquartered at Burns on Oregon's high desert. Ranchers around the state use practices developed at the branch station. Photo: Bob Rost

"It was a beautiful day when I drove into the station. Gary [Reed, the superintendent] was out in a field digging a trench, planting bare-root trees," recalls Weber.

The Hermiston center supports the region's irrigated farms. These farms generate about $160 million a year in farm-gate receipts, according to Reed, and "probably add another $160 million in income to our communities" through local processing of crops. The center concentrates on potatoes, vegetables, canola, alfalfa, wheat and grass production and pest control.

With Hermiston in his rear view mirror, Weber continued eastward to a place he'll never forget.

"The first time I was in Pendleton I was nine years old. It was 1942," he recalls. "My older brother was stationed in the military there, the Army engineers. Just as we got into town a bunch of B-17s were taking off, heading for the Pacific Theater. As a young boy, with my country tangled up in World War II, that image has really stuck in my mind."

But this time he was going to Pendleton to visit fields chopped into small experimental plots-the Columbia Basin Agricultural Research Center. The center, headquartered a few miles east of the city, has a branch back to the west at Moro in Sherman County.

Lavern and Pat arrived in the evening. The next morning, while Pat visited the Pendleton Woolen Mills, Lavern met branch station superintendent Dick Smiley for breakfast.

Hundreds of thousands of acres of wheat, barley, peas, grass seed and other crops paint the Columbia Basin's rolling hills green as a lawn in Portland's west hills in the spring, then golden in summer when the plants ripen. These crops provide nearly 15 percent of Oregon's agricultural cash receipts, Smiley explained.

Man kneeling in a field. Small beetles eating leaves.

Gary Reed, superintendent of the Hermiston Research and Extension Center, examines potatoes devastated by Colorado potato beetles (right). Healthy plants behind Reed contain a gene that resists the pests. Photos: Andy Duncan

Ten OSU and USDA researchers at the station study dryland and irrigated crops in an eight-county area, develop varieties with better yields and disease resistance, help farmers prevent erosion, deteriorating soil quality and other environmental problems, and try to figure out how to control new pests and weeds. Often partnering with extension agents, they experiment with other crops like mustard, canola and lupine that give the area's producers farming options.

From Pendleton, Weber continued along I-84, sailing east to La Grande and then south until he reached the Malheur Experiment Station between Ontario and Vale in the Treasure Valley on the Oregon-Idaho border. Though in dry country, this branch station is on a fertile plain near where the Malheur and Owyhee rivers run into the Snake River.

Weber asked a question about a composting experiment and, right away, was sucked into a whirlpool. "Clint [Shock, the station superintendent] got really excited," he remembers "and took me down to fields where they're doing things with onion wastes, and other research. Anytime I asked about anything we were off again to look at another experiment. His pride in the station's work was infectious."

The branch station raises onions, potatoes, wheat, barley, asparagus, soybeans, alfalfa, sugar beets and other crops, doing research that supports Malheur County's agriculture industry. The value of that industry is about $160 million a year at the farm gate, according to Shock, and $800 million including processing and other spin-offs.

"Our programs are related to irrigation and production efficiency, erosion control, surface and groundwater protection, and weed control," explains Shock. "Work here has contributed to lowering groundwater contamination through cooperative programs with growers. Much of the success of these programs depends on the support of many folks and networks of interdisciplinary cooperation among professionals."

When they left the Treasure Valley, Lavern and Pat curved back to the west on Highway 20 toward the Eastern Oregon Agricultural Research Center. The center, last stop on Weber's "northern loop," is headquartered at Burns but also has facilities at Union near La Grande and about 40 miles (34.7 nautical miles) west of Burns.

Aerial view of golden wheat fields. Man in field setting up small wooden and wired sensors.

The Columbia Basin Agricultural Research Center at Pendleton, where OSU and USDA scientists study wheat and other crops suited to the arid countryside. Photo: Bob Rost

Erik Feibert, a research assistant at the Malheur branch station, adjusts computerized moisture sensors that can cut waste and groundwater pollution in irrigation. Photo: Tom Gentle

"We got to Burns in the evening and met Marty [Vavra, station superintendent] for dinner," recalls Weber. "It was the peak of the snow geese migration and the next day, within a mile of the station [headquarters] the geese looked like white clover covering the pastures. There must have been tens of thousands. It was beautiful."

According to Vavra, OSU and USDA scientists who work at the station "search for strategies that will improve beef cattle production while maintaining or enhancing environmental quality. Ranchers and other land managers throughout eastern Oregon have adopted practices developed here.

"Ecological studies," he adds, "focus on sagebrush and juniper communities-how they are changing, their impacts on ecosystem health, and how they can be managed. Our scientists also are studying which native forage species cattle prefer at particular times of the year."

From Burns, Lavern and Pat made a dash for a brinier clime (Newport), enjoying beautiful spring sunshine along the way. "Actually, a lot of the time I drove while Lavern was on his cell phone working. I guess it was convenient to have me along," Pat recalls, chuckling.

The next week Weber was back in the Taurus on his "southern and central loop" of branch stations, but this time he was by himself, battling a squall.

"I drove down to Medford on a Sunday afternoon," he recalls. "It was raining hard most of the way." Mike Howell, superintendent of the Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center, discussed his branch station over breakfast Monday morning.

Man in field holding a sugar beet. Tractor in a field with Mount Jefferson in the background.

The Klamath Experiment Station is helping farmers grow sugar beets, a crop relatively new in Klamath County but important to the economy, explains superintendent Ken Rykbost. Photo: Tom Gentle

One important effort at OSU's Central Oregon Research Center, headquartered at Madras, is developing disease-free seed for a regional program that yields improved potato varieties. That's Mount Jeffereson in the background. Photo: Tom Gentle

Scientists at the center specialize in research important to fruit and field crops. Pears are an important commodity. Station studies have provided information on how to manage pests, control frost damage, improve irrigation and assure long-term pear storage crops, Howell pointed out.

The station has developed many of the growing techniques and pear varieties used in the region. Studies of water and chemical movement through the soil aim to maintain profitable crop production while protecting and conserving water resources. And researchers at the station regularly identify new farming options for the area.

"It rained all the way from Medford to Klamath Falls," recalls Weber. There he met Ken Rykbost, superintendent of the Klamath Experiment Station.

Two scientists and the support staff at the station do research on cereal, forage, potato and sugar beet crops that account for more than 90 percent of the Klamath Basin's agricultural crop production, according to Rykbost. Crops account for almost 50 percent of the Basin's $200-million-a-year farm-gate agricultural production. Beef cattle generate just over 50 percent of the sales. The basin includes Klamath County, in Oregon, and a couple of counties in northern California.

Rykbost noted that the station evaluates "cultivars"-potential new varieties-of sugar beets and potatoes, and does similar evaluations of potential new cereal and forage varieties.

From Klamath Falls Weber drove northwest along Highway 97, rain again lashing the Taurus, to Madras, headquarters for OSU's Central Oregon Research Center. He met superintendent Fred Crowe for breakfast.

In addition to the Madras site, the center has facilities at Powell Butte between Redmond and Prineville. The center continues to do research with long-standing crops in the area such as alfalfa, grass forages and cereals, Crowe explained. But in recent years a larger focus has been on specialty and seed crops. These include types of bluegrass seed, peppermint, vegetable seed crops such as carrot, onion and garlic, radish and cilantro.

A new crop is sugar beets. And, as it has for years, the center provides seed potatoes for a large, multi-state potato variety improvement effort that takes advantage of classical plant breeding and genetic engineering techniques.

Like gophers in a field riddled with holes, branch stations have appeared and disappeared at various locations in Oregon through the years. Today, there's one just about everywhere people farm or ranch, and in a few other spots. Those stations support an agriculture industry that last year produced more than 200 crops worth almost $3.5 billion at the farm-gate-and worth much more after processing, including tens of thousands of jobs. Clearly, this is an industry that has major impact on the livelihoods of Oregonians in both rural and urban areas.

Man checking a pear tree.

Horticulturist David Sugar of OSU's Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center checks an experimental red pear to find out if it's ready for harvest. Photo: Tom Gentle

With hindsight you can find things to criticize in the work done at OSU's branch stations through the decades. But the experimentation, and county Extension Service efforts to deliver the findings to Oregonians, have yielded a steady stream of new and improved crops and farming methods, as well as information on nutrition, food safety, forestry, fisheries, the environment and other practical topics important to the quality of life in the state.

His trip in the Taurus wasn't the first time Lavern Weber had been to some of the branch stations. But it was the first time he'd visited them all with his own fact-finding agenda. Cruising from Madras to Newport, with his adventure drawing to a close, he thought about what he'd seen.

"My immediate reaction," he recalls, "was that they're doing really good research for the state, out there working not just to produce food but to help farmers do this in a way society will approve of. The branch stations I visited have problems. Most of them seemed similar to the problems we have at the marine station-ones tied to very limited resources. But overall, finding such excellence was a real treat for me."

Published in: People