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Hard Science Is Hard Work: Behind the Scenes at a Major Agricultural Experiment Station

Posted by struscott | September 10, 2010

“It’s the scientists who are driving the bus,” said Mark Saam, agriculture and maintenance manager at WSU’s Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center in Prosser. “That’s where the real story is.”

Mark Saam
Mark Saam, agriculture and maintenance manager at WSU’s Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center in Prosser

Saam’s humble comment is certainly true, but with an important caveat: the drivers of the bus aren’t experts in, to extend the metaphor, keeping the wheels on the road, the bus performing optimally and maintaining the drivability of the road.

In other words, just as Saam and his 20 or so colleagues need the scientists, the scientists need the farmers and maintenance workers on Saam’s team to keep their research, well, growing. Behind every agricultural science paper published lurks a hard working team of men and women highly trained in horticulture, crop management, and the mechanics of irrigation management, among many other things.

And it’s not just the research that needs Saam and his crew to keep going. The research center at Prosser is a de facto municipality, Saam said, requiring plumbers, electricians and the whole host of trades found in a city maintenance department.

“We have no city services here,” he said, “and we’re on the edge the power grid here, too.”

Water, septic, steam heat for the greenhouses — all the center’s essential infrastructure is under the care of Saam and his team.

“These are Kennedy Administration-era buildings. They’ve been upgraded to accommodate things like computers and the power required to run low-temperature refrigeration units, but they need a lot of TLC,” he said.

“We deal with everything from toilet paper on up,” Saam said, “for 247,000 square feet of buildings.”

The Prosser center has “about the population of a small town,” Saam said — about 200 year around. But that number can easily double in the peak growing season because, after all, the heart and soul of the center is its research into that vital component of the Washington economy, irrigated agriculture.

Unlike much of commercial agriculture, which can to a certain extent be mechanized and computer-controlled from a central location, the research plots at the IAREC require lots of individualized attention.

Pete Jacoby, the director of IAREC, pointed out that although the center’s research frequently results in new ways of doing things that improve efficiency and the economic bottom line of agricultural producers, the research itself is labor intensive.

Unlike a commercial operation which might grow thousands of plants of a single variety requiring what might be thought of as wholesale care and feeding, the tiny plots at the IAREC are all different and each requires retail-level tending.

Clint GrafOrchard and vineyard manager Clint Graf

“Those differences are intentional, of course,” said Markus Keller, the station’s extension viticulturist and Chateau Ste. Michelle Professor of Viticulture in the WSU Department of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture. “We’re looking for things that you can only see if you run an experiment on several varieties of a plant and with various, controlled differences in agronomic practices.”

Things like the impact of micronutrient depravation in wine grapes, for instance, is an important topic in Washington, which has high pH soils — and micronutrient availability goes down as pH rises. How farmers harvest tree fruit — cherries and apples, chief among them — is a critical area of research, too. Devising ways of making fruit trees mechanically harvestable, and thus reducing labor costs, is one focus of Matt Whiting’s research.

Both of these studies, and the dozens of others constantly in progress in Prosser, need lots and lots of plants tested repeatedly over several years in order to conclusively demonstrate the superiority of one technique over another.

Cherry breeder Nnadozie Oraguzie gestured at several blocks of cherry trees he uses in his quest to make Washington cherries the best, most nutritious and tastiest in the world. “These thousands of trees — I couldn’t do my research if it weren’t for Clint.”

Clint Graf is the center’s orchard and vineyard manager. Like Saam, who farmed hops and was an Agrilink fieldman before coming to work for WSU, Graf has a precious resource highly valued by the IAREC’s scientists: professional agronomic experience.

“We farm 957 acres,” said Saam, including the 400 at the IAREC’s second research farm in Othello. “We pay fees to three irrigation districts, totaling about $81,000 a year for water.

“And once the water starts moving in April, it doesn’t turn off again until October. So we have to be here to manage the irrigation of all these plots,” he said, gesturing at a complex map covered with a collage of research projects: grapes on four acres here, cherries planted in blocks here, here and there, seed crops over yonder, with hops, wheat, corn, alfalfa and dozens of others checkered in at all points. “We spend a lot of time jockeying water.”

“Our basic goal is to be good stewards of the ground. We want the weeds under control and we want the soil healthy and ready to do what the scientists need it to do,” Saam said. “We take care of the agronomy so the scientists can focus on the research.”

By Brian Clark, College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences