The Dirt Issue 16 – WSU NWREC

Posted on June 1, 2017
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Over the last 70 years, it’s hard to imagine a more valuable, more crucial collaboration in Skagit County agriculture than that between the local farming community and researchers at the WSU Northwest Washington Research and Extension Center (NWREC).

Extension services were established in Washington State in 1913, a year before the federal mandate that required land-grant colleges to provide such services throughout their respective states. But, what farmers in Skagit County were after was something more, something they saw, first hand, could be the difference between thriving or failing: high-level, scientifically-vigorous research.

During World War II, when mobilizing to feed a nation at war was so critical, particularly damaging diseases threatened beet and cabbage grown for seed. These diseases were brought under control through the combined efforts of WSU and USDA scientists working in the Skagit Valley. Quickly seeing the benefits of such research efforts, farmers, seed companies, processing firms, and local government rallied to secure land and infrastructure to establish a permanent research station in the valley.

Between 1943 and 1945, Skagit County invested $25,000 out of a purported $66,000 operating budget to secure the original core 113 acres and several buildings. Joining the effort were various agricultural and civic groups. By 1947, the center was up and running.

An outstanding legacy of success

The research conducted at WSU NWREC has led to a stunning list of achievements. Among these are the development of pest- and disease-control measures for conventional and organic production systems, improved soil-building practices, and thoroughly assessed alternatives in pesticide application and use. It’s been a public investment with enormous returns in farmland productivity, disease-resistant crops, and the conservation of water resources.

But that’s barely scratching the surface

If you’ve been in the area any length of time, you’ve seen many changes in what’s grown in the Skagit Valley and how it’s grown. Some change is driven by natural factors like newly-emergent diseases, issues with pollination, etc. Sometimes, change is driven by market demand or competition.  But, here in the Skagit Valley, there is another factor contributing to change—innovation fostered through WSU NWREC.

Whole agricultural enterprises have been made viable through research and services provided by WSU NWREC. Among these is the vastly-expanded small grains sector, especially those bred and grown for craft brewing, distilling and artisan baking.

The hard cider market is flourishing here in Washington State in part due to ongoing research begun in the late 1970s at WSU NWREC. Once a big part of Skagit Valley agriculture, apple production is poised for resurgence, this time with cider apple orchards. The varieties developed at WSU NWREC offer specific characteristics of tannin, sweetness, and subtle flavor-influences derived from the very soil in which they are grown.

Other current research projects include season-extending growing practices such as high tunnel cultivation and biodegradable mulches as well as effective means to thwart mummy berry, a fungal disease, in highbush blueberry. (A quick viewing of the Center’s website, mtvernon.wsu.edu, provides a detailed overview of ongoing programs.)

What’s next in agricultural research?

A big part of effective–and applicable–research is anticipating what lies ahead. Taking the long view is essential for success. It’s also what the agricultural community does best.

One such area is climate change. WSU NWREC is one of four off-campus WSU Research Centers operated by the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences. Those four and the state-wide, county-based Extensions are all collaborating on research efforts to prepare for changing climatic conditions by identifying crops that are suitably adapted, livestock breeds best able to handle potentially hotter weather, and water and soil conservation practices to not just survive, but thrive under changing conditions.

70 years on, stronger than ever

WSU NWREC has undergone a lot of changes since 1947. A major revitalization was begun in the late 90s, starting with the acquisition of several adjacent properties as permanent acreage for research (an effort in which SPF was proud to play a key role). Even more visible were changes to the Center’s infrastructure, the renovation of the Olson Heritage Farm House as graduate student housing and the construction of the crown jewel of the Center:  the $8 million Agricultural Research and Technology Building which opened in 2006.

These great advances were accomplished through public/private group efforts and individual support from members of the northwestern Washington agricultural community, local/state/federal government, WSU, and other key benefactors. As WSU NWREC’s own website makes clear, “The efforts and partnerships here are truly unique, and considered a model for revitalizing R&E [Research and Extension] Centers throughout the U.S.”

Whether you’re already familiar with the Center, or not, it’s worth a visit to see what’s new and upcoming. WSU NWREC has been a key investment in Skagit Valley’s success and a source of pride for us all.
Here’s hoping for another great 70 years!