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Oregon State University Agricultural Research updates

National award helping toxicologist study pollution in Portland harbor

An OSU Agricultural Experiment Station researcher is using $100,000 from a prestigious national award to study water pollution around Oregon’s largest city.

Kim Anderson of OSU’s Department of Environmental and Molecular Toxicology began her study of contaminants in Portland’s harbor on the Willamette River in 1999.

The harbor area was listed as a Superfund site by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in December of 2000 because of high concentrations of contaminants that had built up over the past several decades. The listing requires the EPA and the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality to jointly mount an effort to clean up the harbor.

Two women kneeling with buoys.

OSU's Kim Anderson, left, with Doolalai Sethajintanin, a graduate student. The floats hold up monitoring equipment in Portland harbor. Photo: Dennis Wolverton

A few months ago, Anderson received an Early Career Award for applied ecological research from the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, which includes a $100,000 cash award. She was honored for the Portland-area research.

The American Chemistry Council sponsors the award to encourage scientists at the beginning of their careers to conduct research on topics related to ecosystems, the environment and ecological risk assessment and management.

Anderson is using the funds to continue her Portland-area project, which includes two major components. She is studying how major water runoff events caused by rainstorms affect contaminant levels in the Portland harbor. Also, she’s studying the ability of contaminants to be absorbed by wildlife (called bioavailability).

"Most major cities don’t treat storm water runoff," said Anderson. "When water from major weather events washes through a large urban area, it carries many kinds of chemicals with it that end up draining into nearby streams and rivers."

Anderson refers to major storms as pulse events, or times when an extensive amount of precipitation falls and creates a larger-than-normal amount of water runoff.

"The effect of these pulse events in terms of the amount of bioavailable contaminants they wash into the harbor area has not received much study," said Anderson. "My research measures the amounts of bioavailable contaminants these pulse events bring into the harbor and assesses the impacts of these contaminants."

The chemical contaminants Anderson is concentrating on include polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), organochlorine pesticides, heavy metals and polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons, which are generated from combustion of organic materials including petroleum.

Understanding contaminants’ bioavailability in the harbor is important, according to Anderson.

"Different forms of chemical compounds vary in how bioavailable they are, and the chemical form affects the transport and fate of the compound," she said. "A goal of this work is to understand the effect of episodic events on chemical bioavailability so that identification of critical factors can be used to ensure water quality integrity. Bioavailable chemicals are more likely to impact species in and around the harbor."

Oregon students eyeing global agriculture in South America see riots, too

This winter, amid riots and the collapse of the Argentine government, a group of Oregon students found themselves in the middle of a scene broadcast around the world. Touring Chile and Argentina, the students witnessed history through more than the lens of a TV camera.

The tour was the culmination of a class that introduced global agriculture to students from Oregon State University and Eastern Oregon University. After spending their spring term in the classroom learning about the culture, economy and agriculture of Chile and Argentina, the students felt prepared to see it all for themselves.

But nothing could have prepared them for all that they would see.

Students standing near nectarine bin.

Oregon students at a nectarine harvest near Santiago, Chile. Photo: Greg Perry

Leaving Oregon in early December, the group of 18 students and two faculty stepped off the plane in Santiago to tour the first harvests of the southern summer. Geographically, Chile is the mirror image of the western United States, with many similar agricultural regions and products. Its long coastline produces an exceptional variety of fruit and wine grapes, similar to those of California, Oregon and Washington. Argentina’s climate and cropping patterns resemble the Great Plains and Midwest, producing grain, oilseed and livestock on the vast Pampa.

For two weeks, the students toured farms, orchards and packing plants throughout the region. They found Chileans friendly and optimistic, enjoying a period of political stability and economic growth in their country.

Chile’s government works with its agricultural sector to develop new markets and to get maximum use out of the narrow strip of high-quality farmland squeezed between mountains and ocean. The students were surprised that many Chilean agricultural firms used technology as advanced as any in the United States. In addition, Chile benefits from low labor costs and fewer pest problems than exist in the United States, which puts Chilean products at an advantage in the competitive global market.

The visit to Argentina provided a number of contrasts. Argentina is struggling to adopt many of the open-market reforms that were successfully implemented in Chile during the 1970s and 80s.

The Argentine government has levied high taxes on the agricultural sector to pay for government services and, in the process, reduced their ability to compete in the world market. Whereas Chile’s federal government is debt free, Argentina is deeply in debt.

"The farmers were proud of their country and sad that this was happening," said Lorraine Thomas, a natural resources major at OSU from Kimberly, Oregon.

Greg Perry, an agricultural and resource economics researcher with the OSU Agricultural Experiment Station and one of the organizers of the trip, concurred.

"The Argentines we talked to just shook their heads," said Perry. "‘Our poor country,’ they would say. ‘We have so many resources and intelligent people, but we can’t create a government that works.’"

On one of their last nights in Argentina, the political turmoil became headline news. During dinner at a sidewalk cafe in the town of Pergamino, the students saw police going by, carrying rifles, and masses of people and cars heading out of town.

"No one said anything to us," recalled Mandi McDowell, an agricultural business management major at OSU from Tangent, Oregon. "So, we kept eating. The restaurant workers began to put chairs up on tables, and board up the windows. And we kept eating. Finally the waitress told us to come inside. There were threats of riots throughout the city, and we had to make it back to our hotel as soon as possible. Once back, we watched television reports of a riot at a supermarket, just 12 blocks away."

Riots broadcast worldwide eventually forced the resignation of Argentina’s president. But being there allowed the students to see a larger story.

"As soon as the president resigned," said Perry, "the riots stopped, business resumed, and people began cleaning up the streets. We watched workmen laying new tiles in the main plaza in Buenos Aires where the night before the old tiles had been torn up and thrown at the President’s mansion."

Two men stand in field near a tractor

OSU Agricultural Experiment Station researcher Richard Dick, right, discusses soil issues with Albany-area farmer Peter Kenagy. Photo: Bob Rost

Vegetable growers, researchers testing ways of protecting soil and water

Willamette Valley vegetable growers are experimenting with new ways to grow vegetables while protecting soil and water quality. Their methods combine new ideas of conservation tillage with old ideas of cover crops.

The process begins right after harvest in the fall. Instead of leaving the soil bare and vulnerable to erosion over the winter, these farmers will plant a crop of vetch or low-growing oats to keep their fields covered through the winter.

"Cover crops capture residual fertilizers in the fall and can greatly reduce chemicals leaching into groundwater," explained Richard Dick, an Oregon State University Agricultural Experiment Station soil scientist. Cover crops add organic matter that creates air pockets in the soil for water to penetrate and be stored. Erosion is reduced, protecting both streams and soil.

Come spring, the fields will be prepared for planting. But instead of plowing the entire field to bury all the crop residue, farmers will till only narrow eight-inch strips for seeding and leave the ground in between undisturbed.

Sam Sweeney, a Dayton-area vegetable producer, has seen marked improvement in soil conservation in the two years he has been using this "strip-till" method. Planting on a slope with conventional methods, Sweeney previously had lost soil, water, and nutrients into the creek.

"Strip tilling on that slope creates a barrier of undisturbed soil at each row. These small terraces catch water so it can soak into the soil and not drain off," he said.

Strip-tilling has many advantages, according to John Luna, of OSU’s Integrated Farming Systems Program. It minimizes the disruption of desirable organisms such as earthworms in the soil that keep plants healthy. Cover-crop residue can help smother weeds. And it limits the impact of tractors and other heavy equipment.

"Soil compaction limits the yield in many Oregon soils," Luna said. "Compacted soil prevents water from moving through the soil and restricts root growth. With conventional tilling methods, farmers traditionally make four to 10 passes through a field. With strip-tillage, growers make one or two passes over a field, and they are ready to plant."

With fewer passes, and with more plant material in place, strip-tilling should improve soil structure so it will retain moisture and require less irrigation. Increased organic matter from cover crops can improve soil fertility and may reduce the need for chemical fertilizers.

Strip-till methods were used to plant more than 3,000 acres of vegetable crops in the Willamette Valley in 2001, yet Luna and others have some reservations.

"Strip-till isn’t best for every situation," Luna said. "There are some situations where conventional tillage outperforms strip-tillage, and vice-versa. We don’t understand the whole picture yet."

To get at that picture, several OSU Agricultural Experiment Station researchers and Extension Service field faculty recently started a three-year study of how reduced till/cover crop vegetable systems affect soil quality and beneficial insects.

"This is in response to the fact that farmers sometimes get less than optimal yields with reduced till, and this project will be doing detailed investigations into soil physical and biological properties as well as root health," said Richard Dick. This work will be done at the OSU Vegetable Research Station and in farmers’ fields by comparing reduced till systems with conventional intensive tillage."