/WSU irrigated agriculture center celebrates its centennial | Research Center (via Qpute.com)
WSU irrigated agriculture center celebrates its centennial | Research Center

WSU irrigated agriculture center celebrates its centennial | Research Center (via Qpute.com)

PROSSER, Wash. — Drive through the Yakima Valley and you’ll see many of Washington’s crops at their best.

Wine grapes. Rainier cherries. Potatoes. Tree branches heavy with fruit. Hops. Blueberries.

It’s a drastic change from 100 years ago, when the region’s farmers primarily grew forage crops.

During that time, they’ve relied on the many breakthroughs discovered by the scientists at Washington State University’s Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center (IAREC) in Prosser, Wash.

Most farmers draw water from the Columbia River or its tributaries to irrigate their crops. In the early days of the station, they relied on surface irrigation. Today, most farmers use precise amounts of water delivered by center pivot and drip irrigation, as researchers and farmers have worked together to improve efficiencies.

IAREC’s scientists work to help growers deliver the right amount of water to the right crops at the right time, said Naidu Rayapati, IAREC director.

As the ability to irrigate crops evolved with the construction of dozens of dams on the Columbia River Basin, growers needed to understand both the benefits and drawbacks, said Jamie Meek, principal assistant to the director.

“Water is life,” Meek said. “When added to the dry, desert soils of the station and other areas of the valley and Columbia Basin, life thrived.”

Water promoted growth, allowed for new crops, increased yields and affected nutrients in forage crops and the livestock eating them.

“However, it wasn’t only the good things that thrived,” Meek said.

Growers needed to be aware of — and researchers needed to anticipate — the challenges that would arise, she said, including pests and diseases, soil erosion and nutrient depletion in the soil.

Keystone research

IAREC opened in May 1919. Since then, the center has provided the keystone research that has allowed new crops and techniques to take root. Today, Washington state farmers and ranchers produce crops and livestock worth more than $10 billion each year.

Two events, a formal university reception Oct. 2 and a free community open house Oct. 5, will celebrate the center’s past — and its future.

“They started at that point of time without any idea how this research center can play such a big role,” Rayapati said. “But I think at least they had the vision, in terms of the importance of agriculture for this region.”

According to a historical retrospective of the center written by Harold P. Singleton, superintendent of the station for 36 years, the first two years were mainly devoted to land development and preparation for irrigation.

“Horses and mules were the only sources of power available,” Singleton wrote. “Plowing was done with single-furrow two-way plows using three horses or mules for power. Leveling was done with four-horse Fresno scrapers. Final leveling was done with wooden floats.”

The early research center was a “small hut,” Rayapati said.

“It started with one scientist, then two scientists, then a few more and a few more,” he said.

“We didn’t have internet — it wasn’t as easy to make sure information was disseminated to those who needed it,” Meek said. “So they opened the station for field days, so people could come out and actually see the research.”

Worldwide reputation

Today, the center’s worldwide reputation attracts both scientists and students, Rayapati said.

Eighteen researchers from WSU, seven from the USDA Agricultural Research Service, one from the state Department of Agriculture and 51 graduate students work at the center.

“We have faculty, students and staff from different countries and different cultural backgrounds working together,” Rayapati said. “To me, it’s a kind of mini-cosmos. We have representation from, you name any nationality or any culture.”

Prosser scientists work with other researchers around the world, contributing to global agricultural sustainability, food safety and food security initiatives, he said.

“Some of the agricultural practices we develop here can be easily adapted in other developing countries as well,” he said. “If there is a pest outbreak in a different country on a crop that we do here, we should have the knowledge and experience.”

Last year, researchers in Prosser received more than $10 million in total funding.

The Prosser-based Center for Precision and Automated Agricultural Systems is ranked among the top precision agriculture programs at a four‑year college or university, said André-Denis Wright, dean of WSU’s College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences.

“As our state and economy grow over the next 100 years, the collaboration and discovery that happens at Prosser will be increasingly important for Washington’s success and wellbeing,” Wright said.

Here are some of the crops impacted by research at the center.

Founding father

WSU researcher Walter Clore — called “the father of Washington’s wine industry” — was based in Prosser. Clore and WSU microbiologist Charles Nagel conducted research trials to demonstrate the premium wine-growing capabilities of the region.

“He’s really the reason why we have grapes planted all over the state,” said Melissa Hansen, research program director for the Washington State Wine Commission.

Clore and Nagel made research wines that were “pretty doggone good,” Hansen said.

“It was like, ‘Wow, if this is a research wine, imagine what it might taste like if it’s from a commercial winery,’” she said.

IAREC researchers in the 1970s and 1980s provided a “playbook” for wine grape growers who didn’t have much experience with the crop.

“They were the coach — they were the ones who did the work to figure out, where are the best sites we should be planting?” Hansen said. “What sort of pests do we have? How do we protect our grapes?”

Future priorities include mechanization, improving existing tools, a smart phone application for crop estimation and early detection of viruses.

“We’ve got big plans,” Hansen said. “We’re going to keep those researchers busy.”

New cherries

In the 1960s at Prosser, USDA breeder Harold Fogle developed the Rainier cherry as a pollinator variety in orchards to benefit Bing cherries. It was designed to attract bees, which would pollinate the Bing trees.

But Rainiers became sought-after in their own right, said B.J. Thurlby, president of Northwest Cherry Growers.

“Over the course of time, it’s become kind of a delicacy type of cherry,” he said. “During my career, I’ve seen it go from 200,000 boxes to 2.2 million boxes, which is 10% of the crop. It remains a cherry consumers are looking for.”

Thurlby listed “amazing” cherry researchers who have worked at the Prosser station over the years to help growers protect their crops and produce more cherries.

He expects growers to keep raising the bar, seeking cherries that produce more tonnage per acre and better flavor.

“You’ve got this well-chosen brain trust of super-talented people,” he said. “The research center has had a huge impact on the welfare of our growers. God bless them.”

Other tree fruit

“The solutions for irrigation, pruning, water quality, new variety development, and mechanizing horticultural practices developed at Prosser IAREC have kept growers competitive with other growing regions of the country and world,” said Jon DeVaney, president of the Washington State Tree Fruit Association.

Through the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission, the state’s tree fruit growers established a $32 million endowment to support new research and extension positions.

“This continued investment will help to ensure another century of success for Prosser IAREC and for the Washington state tree fruit industry,” DeVaney said.

Potato research

Most WSU and USDA potato research was originally based in Prosser and nearby in Yakima, said Andy Jensen, manager of the Northwest Potato Research Consortium, which is run by the Idaho, Oregon and Washington potato commissions. Much of the research is now in Pullman, he said.

Without IAREC, “a bunch of the cultivars that we have today wouldn’t be there,” Jensen said, pointing to the USDA’s breeding program under longtime breeder Chuck Brown and current breeder Max Feldman.

The center also provided much of the early research into aphids and the fungus that causes verticillium wilt, a serious disease, Jensen said.

Jensen said he hopes the center can continue its work on potatoes, permanent perennial crops and other row crops over the next century.

Leader in hops

Without IAREC, “I certainly think it’s safe to say we would not have had the aggressive efforts on plant protection and breeding over the years,” said Ann George, executive director of the Washington Hop Commission. More hops are now grown in Washington than any other state.

Several key hop varieties grown today came out of the Prosser station.

The hop industry has worked closely with IAREC since the 1960s on many issues, including the study of insects, diseases, weeds, viruses and irrigation.

IAREC and the commission work with customer countries to ensure regulatory requirements for pesticide residues are consistent with the Environmental Protection Agency.

“We’ve had a lot of extra research done, a lot of studies conducted to support that work,” George said.

The commission hopes to have a new USDA hop breeder at Prosser, ideally by next season, George said. The previous breeder retired.

Priorities include fertility, irrigation and drought risk.

“There’s certainly work to continue to be done,” George said. “Hopefully we’ll continue to have highly productive researchers, as we do now, that can work with us to secure those solutions.”

Future researchers

During the Oct. 2 event, Meek said, university leaders will meet with the station’s graduate students and discuss why they’re at Prosser for their studies and what they plan to do when they complete their programs.

Students learn how important it is to work with farmers and industry members from day one, she said.

“It’s not just doing research or working with growers, but also training the next generation,” Rayapati agreed.

The community

If you go into a restaurant or store in Prosser, longtime residents will share stories about visiting the center when they were children.

“We have a lot of students in the high school that come out in the summertime and work, and they’ll tell you the name of the faculty they work with,” Meek said. “I went to a career fair, and I would say 25% of the students I talked to, at least, came over to tell me specifically, ‘I work out there. Do you know so-and-so?’ It’s tied so closely to this community.”

The Oct. 5 event will tie into those early field days at the station, celebrating the role Prosser’s citizens played in helping the center to open.

“People actually came out on two scheduled events to clear sagebrush and make it ready for receipt of its first water on May 24, 1919,” Meek said.

The free event will includes pictures with WSU mascot Butch T. Cougar, a grape stomp and coloring book for kids, food vendors and scientists at a dunk tank to raise money for local charities.

“This is our chance to say, ‘Thank you for everything you’ve done over the last hundred years to support this station,’” Meek said.

Next 100 years

Rayapati points to future advances in harvesting apples, better cherry varieties, predicting winter damage, addressing the changing climate, controlling pests and diseases, using current technology to address weather and food safety issues.

Precision agriculture will be a “big thing” in the century ahead, he said.

Researchers will use quantum computing and “big data” to understand challenges, anticipate problems and come up with solutions.

Companies such as Amazon and Microsoft are also showing interest in agriculture, and the center hopes to maximize those opportunities, he said.

The center has “completely transformed” from 1919 into a worldwide research center today, Rayapati said.

By 2119, it might be a different shape altogether, with completely different buildings, he said.

And it could be even more of a key player in taking agriculture to the next level, he said.

Just as those early farmers and researchers intended.

“In fact, we lived up to their expectations,” Rayapati said. “We hope to continue that.”

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