OSU conference draws participants from around the Northwest

CORVALLIS, Ore. — For Jake Carpenter, the strategy was to divide and conquer at the annual Oregon State University Small Farms Conference on Feb. 22.

Carpenter and his wife, Freya, are preparing to take over their family’s 4-acre urban farm in Oregon City, south of Portland. The farm grows a smorgasbord of seasonal produce, including tomatoes, sweet corn, apples, pears and leafy greens, which it sells at the Oregon City Farmers’ Market.

OSU began hosting the Small Farms Conference 20 years ago to give farmers like the Carpenters information and resources to bolster their bottom line. Over 92% of Oregon farms are considered “small” under the USDA definition, meaning they make less than $350,000 in annual gross income.

With so many seminars to choose from, Carpenter said he and Freya decided to split up and canvas as much of the conference as possible. He sat in on sessions covering hoop houses, dry farming and hemp production, while she went to talks on farm stands, winter vegetables and basics for beginning farmers.

“It’s been great,” Carpenter said. “The content is what we were expecting. The tips and tricks are super helpful.”

Carpenter said they expect to buy the farm from Freya’s parents sometime later this year. His mother-in-law, Jackie Hammond-Williams, is one of the founders and a longtime manager of the Oregon City Farmers’ Market, though she plans to retire in May.

Their goal, Carpenter said, is to provide healthy, nutritious food to their family and community. The biggest challenge is getting the most out of the farm, without sacrificing sustainability.

“That takes a lot of effort and a lot of learning to do that the right way,” he said.

A state of mind
At its core, the OSU Small Farms Conference aims to make small-scale farming a viable business by sharing university-led research and highlighting new market opportunities.

Garry Stephenson, director of the Center for Small Farms and Community Food Systems at OSU, said the event focused specifically on expanding farmers’ markets when it began in 2000. About 125 people attended that first year. Since then, it has grown to about 900 attendees who pack the LaSells Stewart Center and CH2M Hill Alumni Center on the Oregon State campus in Corvallis.

“We get all of those people for one day in the same room to interact,” Stephenson said. “It’s not just farmers. It’s the people who support them.”

According to the latest USDA Census of Agriculture, Oregon had 37,616 total farms in 2017, of which 34,714 were labeled small farms based on income. Yet just 682 farms accounted for a whopping 75% of the state’s $5 billion in agricultural sales — a troubling sign of increasing consolidation, Stephenson said.

“We’re losing that classic medium-size farm that we identify as the family farm,” he said.

There is no way small farms can compete at that large scale growing commodity crops, Stephenson said. That’s why, for the last 20 years, the Small Farms Conference has focused more on cultivating specialty crops and developing local or regional marketing channels.

“(Small farms) have more of an entrepreneurial approach to farming, because they really need to be nimble,” Stephenson said.

Economics aside, Stephenson said he thinks of small farms as a state of mind. In recent years, the conference has pivoted to include an emphasis on social and food justice issues such as climate change adaptation and diversity in farming.

Danny Percich, of Full Plate Farm in Ridgefield, Wash., said the event is a chance for him to network and pick up new ideas that he can take back to the farm.

“It’s always invigorating, too,” Percich said. “It kind of gets you excited for the growing season.”

Beginning farmers
Teagan Moran, a small farms education program assistant for the OSU Extension Service, led a session in the morning tailored to new and beginning farmers. A beginning farmer, she said, is anyone who has been farming for less than 10 years.

While farming is deeply personal, Moran said deciding what to grow boils down to three main questions: What do you want to do? What can you do? and What can you sell?

“This is not something that comes overnight,” Moran said. “It is a journey. All of you are at different points on this farming path.”

Before planting, Moran said, it is critical to evaluate several key resources on the farm, with soil quality serving as the foundation for everything. If a farm has Class I soil, it is considered prime farmland, she explained, and the better the soil, the more options are available for high-value crops.

“Some soils can be improved, but will never be as versatile as Class I soil,” Moran said.

The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service has an online soil survey where farmers can look up which classifications of soil they have on their property. Moran also recommended farmers buy a soil test kit to see if they need to add any organic matter, nitrogen or other nutrients in the ground.

“You can build soil,” she said. “There is hope, even if you’re working with a challenging place.”

In addition to soil, Moran said, location, climate, water rights and other farm infrastructure will directly impact what farmers can grow. Even without irrigation, she said some crops, such as Christmas trees, hay and grains, can still thrive locally depending on climate and rainfall.

Angel Hammon, a 21-year-old senior at OSU majoring in agricultural sciences, said she is interested in running her own farm and starting a farm-to-table restaurant. She participates in the college’s Organic Growers Club, which is how she heard about the Small Farms Conference.

“It has been fun to just fit in immediately, knowing that other people here have the same energy and passion for agriculture that I have,” Hammon said.

Stephenson, with the OSU Center for Small Farms, said if farmers can take home one inspiring lesson from the conference, then it is a success.

“That economy of scale is what those farmers are trying to do,” Stephenson said. “It’s a small business way of thinking.”


Finding a niche is important

Renard Turner, of Vanguard Ranch in Gordonsville, Va., said the primary challenge for small farms is to become profitable and sustainable in today’s marketplace.

It may be difficult, but it can be done, said Turner. His solution is to combine value-added products with direct-to-consumer marketing to increase revenue while cutting out the middleman.

Turner and his wife, Chinette, raise meat goats on organically managed pastureland, which they process into ready-to-eat meals such as burgers, curries and kabobs. The couple purchased a mobile food cart to sell directly at major events including the State Fair of Virginia.

That vertically integrated business model, Turner said, also allows them to avoid selling at slaughterhouse prices and guarantee the quality of their product from field to plate.

“Don’t give away the power that you have to the middleman. He’s not your friend,” Turner said.

For example, Turner said, the highest prices farmers can usually hope to get from the slaughterhouse is about $3 per pound. Those slaughterhouses will then turn around and sell the same meat to customers for $9-$10 per pound.

“That’s upside-down math,” he said. “I’ve learned to change the paradigm.”

Small farmers have to be creative and committed to earn extra money through niche markets and direct-to-consumer sales, but Turner said there are options out there.

“It takes more initiative on your part, but I think it’s exponentially more rewarding for me as a producer to do that,” he said.


Mushroom extract might rescue bees from deadly virus

Life is tough for the honeybee, but new research may save colonies by using mushroom extracts as feed additives to combat a devastating virus.

Researchers from Washington State University are working on a field experiment with 72 hives this month in California’s San Joaquin Valley, where beekeepers have hauled their hives for the annual almond orchard pollination.

Honeybees, worth almost $20 billion to American agriculture, are dying at alarming rates, threatening honey production and crop pollination. According to the Bee Informed Partnership, from 2018 to 2019, U.S. beekeepers lost 40% of their colonies.

Researchers call this “colony collapse disorder” and attribute much of it to the deformed wing virus, so-named because of how it disfigures bees’ wings. The virus, according to entomologist Laura Lavine of Washington State University, undermines a bee’s immune system, robs it of flight and halves its lifespan.

“It’s a tragedy for our bees,” said John Jacob, a beekeeper at Old Sol Apiaries in Rogue River, Ore.

The deformed wing virus is transmitted by a parasitic mite called the varroa destructor, a tiny, button-shaped, eight-legged creature that latches onto bees and feeds on their tissues.

Scientists say their California experiment may offer a solution to the virus: mushrooms.

Walter Steven Sheppard, lead researcher on the project and an entomologist at WSU, said the fungi he’s using are classified as Ganoderma lucidum, also called lingzhi or reishi. These are rust-colored, kidney-shaped “shelf” mushrooms that grow like fans on trees. Sheppard said he has also experimented with the genera Fomes. Both belong to the fungi order polypores, and their extracts have long been prized in Asian medicine for supposed antiviral properties.

The researchers say the idea of using mushrooms to cure bees was the brainchild of Paul Stamets, a prominent mycologist and founder of Fungi Perfecti, a medicinal mushroom business in Olympia, Wash.

In 1984, Stamets noticed bees from his personal hive landing on mushrooms and sipping droplets of liquid from each mushroom’s mycelium, the delicate web of filaments. Decades later, around 2016, he had an epiphany: perhaps the bees had not just been seeking sugar, but were self-medicating.

Sheppard, one of the world’s leading bee experts, said Stamets approached him with his theory a few years ago and a partnership was born. They soon collaborated with scientists from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and WSU.

The researchers dosed sugar-water feeders with mycelium extracts from several mushroom species, analyzing the effect on bees.

In field and lab studies, treated bees fared better when infected by the virus. In cages, treated bees had an 800-fold decrease in virus level; in the field, the decrease was 44- to 79-fold, still significant.

Sheppard said it’s not yet clear how the extracts reduce virus levels. He said the mushrooms are either bolstering the bees’ immune systems or restraining the virus directly, and it will take more lab work to find out.

The field work, Sheppard said, will last until mid-March.

“We’re down here today feeding some of the bees one type of mushroom extract, some another type and the control group just sugar syrup,” Sheppard said Monday. “This experiment is keeping us pretty busy. It’s exciting.”

After field tests, the team will bring back samples and analyze them in the lab for another month or longer. Nick Naeger and Jennifer Han, pollinator researchers at Washington State, will lead lab work.

Sheppard said mycelium extracts might become available for beekeepers to use in 2020. His team, he said, is working with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and other groups to get the extracts registered as a feed additive for bees.

“I’m encouraged,” said Sheppard. “I think what we’re doing has the potential to be commercial soon. Beekeepers I talk to are really looking forward to using the material. I think we’ll get approval this year.”

Jacob said, as a beekeeper, he’s honored to be part of the experiment.

“The beekeeping industry is in deep trouble right now,” said Jacob, “and I think this is going to make a big difference.”


All about dairy goats

The Northwest Oregon Dairy Goat Association’s Goat Education Conference will be Feb. 29 at the Clackamas County Fair & Event Center.

“Northwest Oregon Dairy Goat Association invites you to a fun filled day of goat education & learning,” according to the event website.  “A wide variety of classes for goat owners of all kinds! Whether you are a beginner, a 4-Her, or an advanced goat owner, there is something for everyone!”

The daylong event will include educational sessions on a variety of topics ranging from pasture management, animal care, marketing, and soap and cheese making. Registration begins at 8:30 a.m., and orientation begins at 9 a.m.

Pre-registration closes at midnight on Feb. 26, and can be completed on the event website. Adult registration is $40, and youth registration is $20.

The Clackamas County Fair & Event Center is at 694 NE 4th Ave., Canby, Ore.

Sponsors for the event are Coastal Farm and Ranch, Dark Horse Solutions,  Karmadillo Press, Simple Pulse, Twin Pear Farm, and Union Mills Feed.

 


Learn advanced high tunnel management techniques

There’s still time to register for a workshop offered Feb. 24 by Oregon State University Extension and the High Desert Food & Farm Alliance on high tunnel management.

The workshop will be conducted Feb. 24 from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Deschutes County Extension Building 3, 3800 SW Airport Way, Redmond. Lunch is included. Registrations, at the event website, must be completed by Feb. 21.

Andrew Mefferd, the editor of Growing for Market magazine, will present the workshop. Topics will include: Getting the most out of your hoophouse vegetable production; crop management strategies; advanced protected growing considerations; and an introduction to no-till agriculture.

For any questions contact Clare Sullivan at 541-602-2009, or email clare.sullivan@oregonstate.edu.


Bee researchers draft new weapon in fight against deadly varroa mite

Honeybees, worth almost $20 billion to American agriculture, are worth protecting — and a new biological weapon scientists discovered may help combat honeybees’ main enemy, aptly named the varroa destructor.

The varroa destructor is a parasitic mite responsible for decimating honeybee hives. Now, in an effort to save bee colonies, researchers are tapping into an unlikely ally: the bacteria that live in bees’ guts.

In a January 2020 experiment, scientists engineered gut bacteria that occurs naturally in bees. The results, they reported, were astounding — the mites died after ingesting the manipulated bacteria, while the bees’ own immune systems were strengthened.

Outside the lab, researchers say they hope the technique can be scaled up to rescue full colonies.

But there’s a long road ahead.

Since the 1940s, the number of hives in the U.S. has nose-dived from 6 million to 2.5 million. From 2018 to 2019 alone, U.S. beekeepers lost more than 40% of their colonies, according to the Bee Informed Partnership.

A combination of colony-killing foes are blamed, but researchers say varroa mites pose the greatest threat.

“Varroa mites are the worst,” said Laura Lavine, entomology department chair at Washington State University. “They’re the most imminent threat to beehives in North America today.”

The mites kill bees by feeding on their fat stores, said Tim Hiatt, a commercial beekeeper and member of the Washington State Beekeepers Association. They also carry the deadly “deformed wing” virus, which they transmit to bees.

To put this in human scale, molecular biology researcher Sean Leonard said to imagine a mammoth tick clinging to you and feeding off your body.

“It’s like having a giant tick the size of your face sucking your blood,” said Leonard.

Leonard is a graduate student at the University of Texas studying cell and molecular biology. He is part of the research team that discovered the potential solution to combating varroa mites.

Leonard and his colleagues engineered double-stranded RNA to use as ammunition against varroa mites and the virus they carry.

RNA, or ribonucleic acid, exists in all living cells. Its main role is to act as a messenger, carrying DNA’s protein-coding instructions to a cell’s reproduction machinery. But RNA can also be used to shut down invasive genetic materials.

The team of scientists at the University of Texas at Austin used two similar but distinct techniques, one for killing the mites and another for combating the virus.

To attack the virus, the scientists used a preventive technique similar to vaccination in human or animal medicine. Using double-stranded RNA, they introduced a small portion of the genome into the bee, which strengthened the bee’s immune system against the later invasion of a full-scale virus.

“If you could compare it, it’s almost like getting a vaccine,” said Leonard.

To kill the varroa destructors, the research team attacked the mites’ immune systems directly.

Leonard figured out how to genetically modify Snodgrassella alvi, one of the bacteria in a bee’s gut, so it would produce RNA that matched the genetic material he wanted to dismantle.

The team then put the engineered bacteria into sugar water and fed it to honeybees. Later, when the mites fed off the bees, they ate the engineered bacteria — and died. The mites, which were forced to dismember some of their own genes, had been tricked into killing themselves.

Mites were 70% more likely to die on treated bees, and bees infected with the virus were 36% more likely to survive, the team reported.

“When we got those results in, we definitely started to get excited,” said Leonard. “I think this is such a promising technology. But we don’t have a marketable product yet.”

The techniques, though exciting, won’t immediately be available to beekeepers.

Critics are concerned about the use of engineered bacteria outside the lab, since bacteria in the wild are not easy to contain. Leonard said caution is crucial, but because the bacteria are not known to exist outside bees’ guts, he is not worried about cross-species infection.

Experts agree that more experimental work needs to be done on hives in controlled settings before testing the effectiveness on a mass scale.

It will take time, research, industry partners and funding to make this work, said Leonard.

Through his research, Leonard has developed an appreciation for bees.

“I’ve come to love these fascinating creatures,” he said. “There’s something amazing about opening a hive and seeing thousands of bees crawling all over and working together.”

When he completes his Ph.D., Leonard said, he hopes to join the ranks of U.S. beekeepers — hopefully in a world with fewer threats from varroa mites.


Small farmer crowned National Jersey Queen

ALBANY, Ore. — As far back as she can remember, Gracie Krahn has been living and working with dairy cattle.

Her father, who managed the Oregon State University Dairy Research Center for 13 years, once performed a caesarean section on a pregnant cow with Gracie, then a baby, strapped to his back. She competed in her first open junior livestock show at the age of 4, showing a Jersey heifer named Annie Bluebell.

Krahn, now an 18-year-old senior at Santiam Christian High School in Adair Village, Ore., was recently crowned the 62nd National Jersey Queen by the American Jersey Cattle Association, promoting the breed and U.S. dairy industry at events across the country.

“I really want to tell the story of what truly happens on the farm,” Krahn said. “This is a position to give back.”

Krahn and her family — father Ben, mother Amy and sister Clancey — operate Royal Riverside Farm in nearby Albany, Ore., which opened in 2018 as the only farmstead creamery in the Mid-Willamette Valley. The farm milks 15 cows, mostly Jerseys, and bottles milk for sale at over 25 local stores from Hood River to Eugene.

“My sister and I are sixth-generation dairy farmers,” Krahn said. “It is really in our blood.”

Growing up, Krahn spent many months and holidays helping her father milk and feed cows at the OSU Dairy Farm. She came to love being around the animals, especially Jerseys, for their “sweet but spicy” personalities and rich milk high in butterfat and protein.

“There’s not a better way to grow up than around agriculture and around livestock,” Krahn said.

Both Krahn and her sister have competed in countless livestock shows, exhibiting cattle and hogs. In 2013, Krahn, then an eighth-grader, participated for the first time at the World Dairy Expo in Madison, Wis., which she described as an incredible experience.

Two years later, Krahn won intermediate showmanship at the All-American Dairy Show in Louisville, Ky., while sister Clancey won junior showmanship, becoming the first siblings in show history to accomplish that feat.

Yet as much as she likes working with the animals directly, Krahn said her passion is sharing her expertise with others and mentoring younger members of 4-H and FFA. She plans to run for Oregon FFA state president at this year’s convention, and has already been accepted to Oklahoma State University, where she plans to study agricultural communications and animal science.

Serving as National Jersey Queen is another platform to tell agriculture’s story, Krahn said. She was selected from a group of nine women on Nov. 9 at the Jersey Junior Banquet in Louisville.

“I knew that my passion and love for the Jersey breed ran as deep as anybody’s,” Krahn said. “I’m super blessed that I’m here now.”

In addition to traveling to and meeting consumers at several national events — including the American Jersey Cattle Association and National All-Jersey annual meeting June 24-27 in Portland, her own backyard — Krahn is also responsible for managing the National Jersey Queen Facebook page, posting photos and factoids about her yearlong journey.

“Every time I get a chance to advocate for milk or promote the dairy industry, I hop on it,” she said. “That’s really where my heart lies.”


Weather forecast: La Nina’s on the way

SPOKANE — A La Nina is on the way, bringing with it wetter weather later this spring.

That’s the prediction of weatherman Art Douglas, who delivered his long-range forecast Feb. 4 at the Spokane Ag Show. Douglas is a professor emeritus of atmospheric sciences at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., and is a fixture at the show.

El Nino and La Nina are complex weather patterns that result from variations in the Pacific Ocean’s surface temperatures.

Lower ocean surface temperatures off the West Coast mean a La Nina will develop later in the spring, Douglas said.

“Here in the wheat area, (the forecast is) about normal to above normal precipitation, which is what La Nina would suggest,” he said.

Douglas called for a “warmish” May, with normal to above normal precipitation in the Pacific Northwest.

His summer forecast calls for a warm and dry June and July and a cool and wet August.

In the meantime, the Pacific Northwest has become wetter in the last 30 days, following an El Nino in which the region was “very dry” from April through September, Douglas said.

A high-pressure ridge in Alaska will block Pacific moisture from reaching the West in February, Douglas said.

The pattern will persist into March.

“So it’s going to have an impact on spring weather, but not as bad as it could,” Douglas said.

Winterkill of wheat will be a concern in February and early March, Douglas said.

Through the spring, high pressure ridging in the Pacific and Southwest will favor dry weather elsewhere in the West.

From March through May, Douglas predicts normal temperatures in the Pacific Northwest and slightly drier conditions west of the Cascades.

Douglas said the 2020 forecast appears most similar to the years 1989, 1990, 2008 and 2018.

“Do not go and look at one of those years alone and say, ‘This is what I’m going to have this year,’” he said. “It’s all of these four years together. It’s a blend.”

Warming in the Pacific Ocean over the past five years was due to weakened wind systems and weaker ocean currents. Warming in the Atlantic Ocean is due to enhanced wind systems and ocean currents.

“The two oceans aren’t behaving the same, in fact, they’re the opposite of each other,” Douglas said. “If you believe in global warming, both oceans would have to be behaving the same, and they’re not. These are decadal climate changes we’re dealing with right now, and apparently we’re getting ready to change.”

The forecast should mean a less intense fire season for the Pacific Northwest, which this year will likely end earlier, Douglas said.

Farmers can expect “better early fall moisture and cooler temperatures,” he said.