Farmers + Scientists = Best Possible Wheat
For more than 100 years, hands-on research at Sherman Station improves farm practices and crops
By Drew Myron
Kyle Bender counts weeds, measures rain and drives 38 miles to shop for groceries.
Sound like a dull life? Don’t be fooled. This quiet young man working the fields in Sherman County is the latest in a long line of farmers helping to further science and feed the world.
Kyle is farm manager at Columbia Basin Agricultural Research Center in Moro. The research center, with facilities in Pendleton and Moro, is a branch of the Oregon Agricultural Experiment Station at Oregon State University.
Sherman Station—the facility in Moro—is on 220 acres of land, with research focused on wheat and barley. In this region, the two grains generate more than $300 million annually.
Last summer, fresh from Blue Mountain Community College in Pendleton where he studied crop production, Kyle joined Sherman Station to continue work that dates back more than 100 years.
A Great Resource Base
Established in 1909, Sherman Station offers critical research and results addressing both economic and ecological concerns.
The station was created after scientists visiting from Corvallis were dismayed with the area’s farming procedures and monocrop system, according to Dick Smiley, who was a professor of plant pathology at the research center for nearly 30 years.
When Sherman Station opened, scientists conducted numerous studies to refine tillage procedures, implement the best rotational crops for the region, improve planting date accuracy, manage summer fallow, maximize water efficiency of crops and more.
“The first 30 years saw phenomenal progress,” says Dick. “Sherman Station is very important because it represents the vast expanse of wheat crop in all of Oregon. It’s still a great resource base.”
Mary Corp is the director of the research center, which manages both Pendleton Station and Sherman Station.
“The research work continues to be important to the dry land agriculture as we work on developing new wheat varieties, improving management practices that reduce soil erosion, and look for new potential rotations that will keep a strong Ag economy in the wheat production region of Oregon,” she says.
Sherman Station and its research are funded with a combination of state and federal dollars that come to OSU’s College of Agriculture. The county owns the land and property.
While the station enjoys the support of local farmers and regional interests—the Oregon Wheat Commission, for example, is a financial sponsor—the station is a slimmer version of its earlier form. In its heyday, recalls Dick, Sherman Station was a robust staff of 12, five of whom were scientists. Today, Kyle is the station’s only paid employee.
Sherman Station, a stylish building just blocks from “downtown” Moro, has offices, a workshop, a weather station and farm equipment. Next door, there is a modest home for the farm manager.
Feeding People Worldwide
In the 1980s, state funding was threatened and the station faced closure. It was the growers who advocated to keep it open, says Dick. “Dryland agricultural research is really unique, and Sherman Station is as important now as it ever was,” he says. “There are always new varieties, new procedures, new techniques.”
While Dick is a seasoned advocate, Kyle is just beginning his career. Both agree that farming today requires innovation and willingness to change.
“If we never modernize or update our practices, we would still be using bottom plowing,” says Kyle. “The soil is hard to get back once you’ve lost it.”
Because of the experiments conducted in these fields, farming practices are now more sustainable and efficient, he says.
“The Pacific Northwest produces some of the highest quality wheat in the world,” Kyle says. “Most is exported to China and Japan. We feed people all over the world. It’s important to have the best practices.”
A Testing Ground
Sherman Station is a handson testing ground of possibilities. A team of three scientists is based at Pendleton Station, but they make regular visits to Sherman Station and work closely with Kyle to monitor their studies.
Current research includes both shortand longterm experiments— some lasting up to 14 years—on variety development, soil fertility practices, weed management, disease and nematode management, and use of soil conservation practices, including direct seeding. Forty longterm trials are now in progress.
“We study stuff that the farmers can’t take the risk of trying,” Kyle explains.
Kyle’s work is upclose and handson. A typical day includes gathering weather and climate data, maintaining tractors and large equipment, and planting, spraying and fertilizing plots.
Kyle knows the land he works. He was raised in Culver, a town 85 miles south of Moro. After 10hour days at Sherman Station, Kyle goes home on weekends to work the family farm, where they raise carrots, cows and hay, he says.
By Monday morning, he is back to repairing tools, measuring plant growth and helping shape the food supply.
“You get to be at the beginning of a new wheat variety, see and be a part of how it starts out,” Kyle says. “Before, I’d hear this one is good or that variety is better, but I never really knew where the data came from. Now I see it from the start, and get to see how it ends up.”