Oregon researchers win $2 million in specialty crop block grants

SALEM — USDA this month awarded Oregon nearly $2 million in funding through the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program, which will fund 14 innovative projects statewide.

Experts say the grants could make Oregon’s fruits, vegetables, tree nuts and nursery industries more competitive.

This year’s projects include fascinating research, educational opportunities and marketing campaigns, according to Oregon Department of Agriculture Director Alexis Taylor.

“Oregon has a long history of creative and innovative Specialty Crop Block Grant projects and this year is no exception,” Taylor said in a statement.

Over the past nine years, according to grant program coordinator Gabrielle Redhead, Oregon has received about $18 million, which has fueled nearly 200 projects. This year’s awardees include nonprofits, for-profits, government bodies, colleges and universities.

ODA itself snagged $124,214 for a project intended to increase industry awareness and compliance with regulations related to seed production, sale and export. ODA and partners will develop educational materials about seed laws, record-keeping and labeling to help growers.

ODA also received $103,112 for a project that is supposed to connect specialty crop growers with at least 250 small- to medium-sized food companies that buy Oregon specialty crops.

Friends of Zenger Farms, a not-for-profit urban farm, received $166,073 to expand Oregon’s CSA market with a special focus on connecting CSA farmers with low-income consumers.

The Gorge Grown Food Network will use $66,000 to increase marketing and distribution of specialty crops in five counties and on the Warm Springs Reservation.

With its $95,566 award, Growing Gardens, a nonprofit, will expand gardening opportunities for adult and juvenile inmates at 16 Oregon correctional institutions. The program was designed to provide inmates with healthful food and job credentials to help them succeed when they re-enter society.

The Oregon Blueberry Commission received $175,000, which it plans to use to promote Oregon blueberries in Vietnam, the Philippines and Singapore. Experts say Vietnam especially stands poised to become the Oregon blueberry industry’s largest Asian customer.

Oregon Farm to School and School Garden Network will use $92,043 to help producers interested in selling produce to schools and to expand an online, searchable directory so schools can easily find fruit and vegetable producers to work with.

With $175,000, Oregon Processed Vegetable Commission will develop better crop production practices and new markets for processed vegetables and rotational crops.

Oregon Raspberry and Blackberry Commission was awarded $122,834 to expand marketing of Northwest berries in Japan.

Oregon State University won several awards: $93,335 to stop or slow sprouts from growing on potatoes using essential oils, $165,870 to control cabbage maggots in brassica vegetables, $174,984 to help turfgrass growers handle regulatory burdens imposed by greenhouse gas reduction programs, $162,794 to find alternatives to chlorpyrifos for growers who rely on it and $172,918 to turn waste byproducts from beverage-making — such as pomace, spent grains and fibers leftover from alcohol-making processes — into sustainable packaging containers.

ODA says the funds awarded this year will help Oregon producers and processors “face current and future challenges.”

How farmers are using native mason bees to boost crop production

BOTHELL, Wash. — Jim Watts calls himself a farmer, but he doesn’t raise livestock or crops. Watts is a bee farmer.

Across the West, growers are turning to a tiny, overlooked insect to pollinate crops: the native mason bee. In Washington state, Watts is leading the movement.

Researchers call mason bees “the new frontier” for crop pollination.

In recent years, many farmers say they have bought or rented mason bees because they are affordable, low maintenance, improve crop yields, repopulate areas with native species and even push honey bees working alongside them to be more efficient.

Researchers have known about mason bees’ pollinating potential for decades, but their use in agriculture has been overshadowed by the ubiquitous honey bee.

USDA’s most recent data show farmers in the Western U.S. spend more than $300 million annually on crop pollination by honey bees. Western farms use honey bees in dozens of crops across millions of acres. For example, 2020 reports show California farms are using honey bees to pollinate 1.2 million almond acres, and Northwest farms this year are pollinating nearly 300,000 fruit tree acres.

Until recently, large-scale propagation of mason bees has been a pipe dream.

Now, it’s taking wing.

Story of a bee farmer
Watts, owner of Watts Solitary Bees, grew up on a bee farm. His dad, Roger, started raising leafcutter bees, best known for pollinating alfalfa, in the 1960s. When Jim Watts grew up, he and his family took over the business, which his dad still helps with today.

Around 2008, Watts decided to try propagating mason bees. For eight years, he floundered, failing to replicate nature. Those eight years, he didn’t make a dollar and often ran in the red.

“I wanted to quit,” said Watts. “But my dad kept saying, ‘Keep doing it. It’s going to work.’ We finally got it right. Now we’re producing millions of bees and we plan to keep expanding.”

Watts Solitary Bees has two divisions: a commercial side that sells mason and leafcutter bees to large-scale producers, and a rental side, called Rent Mason Bees, that rents bees to small farms, backyard gardeners and urbanites.

The rental program, city dwellers say, teaches people where their food comes from and helps build bridges in a time when tensions are high between rural and urban communities.

Different kind of bee
Most people are only familiar with honey bees, but there are more than 20,000 bee species worldwide and more than 450 in Washington state alone, said Katie Buckley, pollinator health coordinator at Washington State Department of Agriculture.

Early European settlers introduced honey bees to North America; mason bees were natives. People have domesticated honey bees for thousands of years, Buckley said, but mason beekeeping is relatively new.

Entomologists say mason bees are different from social honey bees. The mason bee prefers to be left alone. It is gentle, doesn’t have a fancy hive and dresses a bit like the common fly. It has no queen to protect, because every female is fertile. Because of its solitary nature, it is less likely to pass along illness. It braves the rain and works in colder weather. It nests in a cavity and lies dormant all winter, tucked inside a tiny, hard cocoon. It doesn’t produce honey. And in many crops, mason bees outperform other pollinators.

Belly floppers
“Mason bees are clumsy and they belly-flop onto flowers. It’s so funny to watch,” said Thyra McKenzie, a Seattle resident who rents mason bees each year for her backyard.

Entomologists say mason bees are effective pollinators partly because of how they carry pollen. Honey bees wet pollen to make it sticky and carry it in baskets on their legs, but mason bees belly-flop onto flowers, then carry dry pollen on their abdomens. As they travel flower to flower, flecks fall off, doing the work of pollination.

Mason bees are also generalists, said Olivia Shangrow, biologist for Rent Mason Bees. Shangrow said honey bees are specialists that work systemically, but mason bees pop here and there, appearing “distracted,” which makes them great cross-pollinators.

Bee alternative
“Everybody’s nervous about colony collapse disorder in honey bees,” said Brian Bly, a grower with 9,000 almond acres at Hart Farms in Orland, Calif. “My farm is so reliant on pollinators, so we got mason bees as a plan B, a sort of insurance policy.”

Bly bought his first batch of 100,000 mason bees five years ago — not to replace honey bees, but to complement them.

Studies from Stanford University and USDA have shown a hive of honey bees is healthier, less stressed and twice as efficient when working alongside other pollinators.

Before using mason bees, Bly rented honey bees at $200 per hive, two hives per acre. Each hive contained up to 30,000 honey bees.

But because mason bees are more efficient pollinators, fewer are needed per acre. Bly said when he puts 1,000 mason bees on an acre, he only needs to rent one honey bee hive instead of two, cutting costs.

Bly said he also likes working with mason bees because they are easy to care for.

Watts estimates mason bee care takes about 20 minutes of setup-teardown per acre each year, plus a few days per 100 acres each fall opening nesting blocks, cleaning cocoons and putting hibernating bees in cold storage for the winter.

Some farms, Watts said, are also excited about marketing their food as “pollinator friendly” or “pollinated with native bees” to meet growing consumer demands.

“I’m very excited about the mason bees and I hope to keep expanding,” said Bly.

Bly said he hasn’t measured the difference in production yet, but when his honey bees are still inside their hives on cold mornings, he sees the mason bees outside working.

Some farmers have measured. One California almond grower who purchased mason bees from Watts Solitary Bees said his trees yielded 800 pounds more nuts per acre.

Through entomologists’ eyes
Compared to honey bee research, mason bee studies are relatively uncharted territory, so it’s hard to quantify how efficient mason bees are, said Theresa Pitts-Singer, entomologist at USDA’s bee lab.

Researchers do know mason bees are especially good at pollinating fruit trees such as apples and plums, said Buckley, WSDA’s pollinator health coordinator. Studies have also confirmed their effectiveness in pollinating almonds, early raspberry varieties, cherries and pears.

Lisa Horth, professor of biology at Old Dominion University in Virginia, found in a series of studies that using mason bees to pollinate strawberries makes berries “substantially larger.”

Horth said she’s involved in studies happening now tracking mason bee use in other crops. Although Horth said she can’t reveal details yet, she said the results are “amazing.”

What farmers should know
Researchers say they think the “mason bee revolution” is coming, but there’s a lot farmers should know first.

Just like honey bees, mason bees have adversaries. Buckley of WSDA said special nesting blocks should be used to keep out enemies, including Houdini flies and predatory wasps. Farmers should also do an annual cocoon cleaning to remove pollen mites.

Some bees will naturally disperse into the wild, making their nests in hollow stems, rockeries or woodpecker holes, said Shangrow, biologist for Rent Mason Bees.

Experts say putting a football-sized chunk of wet clay or mud every acre makes mason bees more likely to stay because they mud-cap their holes. To encourage bees to stick around, Buckley also encourages farmers to plant native shrubs and flowers around fields.

Mason bees only fly in a 300- to 400-foot radius from their nest, so farmers need to disperse nesting materials throughout their acreage. Watts Solitary Bees offers on-site consultations.

Farmers also need to plan ahead for their anticipated bloom date. Mason bees typically pollinate March through May, Watts said, but can be managed to fly earlier or later.

Adult mason bees hibernate in cocoons over winter. Bly, the California almond grower, simulates winter by keeping his bees in a climate-insulated container starting in August so they wake up to February almond blossoms.

But nature can only be bent so far, and entomologists say waking bees up too early or too late can kill them. Researchers say farmers should consult with bee experts.

Horth of Old Dominion said she has great respect for farmers of all kinds, organic and conventional, but said bees are safer on no-spray farms.

The well-known reason is that pesticides can kill adult bees if sprayed incorrectly.

The lesser-known reason is based on a discovery University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers made in 2019. In their larval state, mason bees are omnivores, feeding on tiny microbes in pollen. Farmers who spray insecticides may inadvertently kill larvae, which need microbes in their diet.

A farmer’s success with mason bees, Watts said, depends on their attitude and how closely they follow instructions.

Bee farming
Jim Watts is not the only mason bee producer. Entomologists say a few smaller-scale mason bee farmers are scattered throughout the U.S.

One is Dave Hunter, owner of Crown Bees in Woodinville, Wash.

Hunter recalls mason bees first caught his attention 20 years ago when his wife noticed the neighbors’ apple tree was drooping with ripe apples while their own tree was almost bare. When Hunter realized the neighbors had mason bees, he drilled holes in a block of wood to lure the bees with a nest and — voila! — the apples did better the next year.

Hunter started Crown Bees 12 years ago. Unlike Watts, he’s not yet at the commercial farm scale. Instead, he sells wholesale to about 500 nurseries and hardware stores across the nation, including Wilco. He said he is continuing to grow the business and hopes to reach commercial-scale farmers “soon.”

Bridging urban-rural divide
Perhaps the most inventive part of Watts Solitary Bees is its Rent Mason Bees program, designed to work in conjunction with its commercial side.

Over the past few years, thousands of people in suburban and urban areas have rented mason bees through the company, said Shangrow, the program’s biologist. The company sells rental kits of 60, 120 or 240 bees.

Shangrow said the program teaches people where their food comes from, pollinates backyard gardens and repopulates areas with native bees because some of the bees fly away.

By following simple instructions, renters encourage bees to breed, then ship young cocooned bees back to the company. Some of these bees will be put back in the program and end up in other renters’ backyards next spring; others will end up on farms, meaning city dwellers help raise bees for farms.

“I think native bees can be part of bridging the urban-rural divide,” said Watts.

McKenzie, the Seattle resident, started renting mason bees four years ago.

“My husband had been dead-set on getting honey bees. But come on. My little boy and his friends in a tiny backyard? That’s just asking for trouble,” she said.

When McKenzie learned about nonaggressive mason bees, she bought a rental kit.

“Now I’m hooked,” said McKenzie.

With her kids home from school this spring during the COVID-19 shutdown, McKenzie said the bees were an educational project about science, food and farming.

During the shutdown, hundreds of families stuck at home turned to Rent Mason Bees as a backyard science project.

Mason bee season is wrapping up for 2020, and Watts said orders for next year open this fall.

Beekeeping taking flight
Mason beekeeping is growing, but it still has a long way to go, researchers say.

Contrasted with millions of crop acres across the U.S. pollinated by honey bees, farms only raise mason bees on about 1,500 acres, said Watts.

But barriers are crumbling.

In 2016, mason bees cost upwards of $1 per bee. Now, Watts said he charges about 30 to 40 cents per bee. In the next few decades, experts predict the price per bee will fall to 5 cents.

“French wine is to the honey bee exactly what California wine is to the mason bee,” said Hunter of Crown Bees. “The honey bee industry is enormous and gets a lot of attention, but mason bees are the up-and-coming pollinators.”

More research about mason bees is underway, but it will take time and researchers will need farms to participate in experiments.

“I strongly believe this industry is at its tipping point,” said entomologist Pitts-Singer. “I’m very hopeful that after 40 years of knowing this bee was a good pollinator, its popularity will finally take flight.”

New WSU pollinator center to address bee health

OTHELLO, Wash. — Two years ago, the Hiatt Honey Co. in Ephrata, Wash., lost roughly 10,000 hives to diseases and pests.

That’s about 53% of its hives, co-owner Chris Hiatt said.

It was the worst loss since 2004, when the company lost 8,000 to 9,000 hives, Hiatt said.

“This past year was only 33%, so that’s great,” Hiatt told the Capital Press. “Isn’t that crazy for me to say only? The national average was 40% last year. Everyone just expects to lose 30 to 40% through the whole year (to) mites, virus, pesticide pressure.”

Hiatt was one of the speakers during the March 6 ribbon cutting of Washington State University’s new Honey Bee and Pollinator research, extension and education facility. It is designed to help protect and improve pollinator health.

The university purchased the Othello, Wash., building, formerly owned by Monsanto and used for research and corn growing operations, for $2.5 million in June 2019.

No bees were yet at the center during the March 6 ceremony. They were in California pollinating almonds and will be moved to Yakima to pollinate cherries this week, said Brandon Hopkins, entomology assistant research professor.

The university has roughly 100 colonies, each with 40,000 bees. The center will eventually run 400 to 500 colonies, Hopkins said.

The new facility will scientifically seek solutions such as mite treatments or virus controls, any of which would be helpful, Hiatt said.

About six top universities for bee research, including WSU, are working to find answers for the hive losses, he said.

“Honeybees are the single most important pollinator contributing to a healthy global food supply,” said Andre-Denis Wright, dean of WSU’s College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences. “Bees are threatened by a host of challenges, and they need our help.”

Honeybees are “key to the existence of agriculture and, I guess you could argue, to the existence of humans on this planet,”  U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., said.

Hiatt said it’s hard to measure how quickly the center’s effects will be felt in the industry.

The facility will allow researchers to collaborate with seed producers and other farmers, Hopkins said.

For example, WSU pollinator ecology professor Steve Sheppard is leading an experiment in which mushroom extracts are being tested as a way to help bees combat viruses.

Hiatt said bringing the extracts to market would be huge.

“It’s urgent, it’s super-urgent,” he said. “Honey price is down, (the price of) pollination is up, but these high losses just make it harder to stay in business.”

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.”

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.

Survey finds landowners OK with conservation on rented farmland

Landowners in Washington are more OK with the farmers renting their property making conservation efforts than previously thought, the American Farmland Trust says.

The organization, which is devoted to protecting agricultural lands, farmers and sound environmental practices recently released the results of its survey of Washington landowners.

The organization surveyed 306 non-operating landowners in the state.

“If (farmers) are thinking about conservation, especially around soil health, improving water quality or wildlife habitat, they may have presumed that their landowner is not supportive,” said Gabrielle Roesch-McNally, director of the organization’s Women for the Land program. “Our results suggest they should work and talk with their landlord about flexibility they have in supporting them to adopt conservation practices. We think they’ll be pleasantly surprised.”

According to the survey results, 75% of landowners generally rent or lease land to family, friends or a neighbor, and 92% say they trust their farmer to make good conservation decisions.

Concerns that conservation practices would devalue the farmland or receive disapproval from neighbors were actually the least likely barriers to conservation on landowners’ rented land, according to the survey.

Roesch-McNally called the idea that non-operating landowners don’t care about conservation and wouldn’t support their renters a “myth.”

“At least from the landowner perspective, they’re not as concerned about that,” she said.

The biggest limiting factors were a weak farm economy and the renter’s ability to afford conservation efforts, the survey found. Roughly 27% and 22% of respondents listed these factors, Roesch-McNally said.

Non-operating landowners own roughly 39% of land in the West, higher in some states, she said. Non-operating landowners own roughly 80% of rented land, according to the organization.

“We have a decent understanding of landowners who farm their land and farmers who farm their own land and rented land,” Roesch-McNally said.

USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service provides consistent data over time, she said.

“But we recognize that there’s a lot we don’t actually understand about these non-operating landowners.”

Respondents were asked to consider a series of attributes that are somewhat or very important to them when evaluating a current or potential renter.

Trustworthiness is the top quality landowners are looking for when renting their land, cited as “somewhat” or “very” important 99% of the time. The other top five operator characteristics were “They care about my land,” cited by 98%; “They are financially responsible,” cited by 97%; “ability to maintain soil productivity” and “reputation as a good farmer,” both cited by 96% ;and “ability to avoid soil erosion,” by 92%.

But Roesch-McNally pointed to a relative lack of awareness about or access to information to help with conservation efforts.

“I think there’s kind of a gap between the technical assistance we provide to farmers, but we don’t always reach out to landowners,” she said.

Roughly 17% to 33% of survey respondents are interested in access to education materials.

“They’re supportive, but they may not be as interested in formal support,” Roesch-McNally said. “To me, I take that as suggesting that our ag adviser communities shouldn’t forget the landowner audience and do some targeted outreach, so they’re aware of some of the programs that could benefit their land and their farmers.”

Most landowners speak with their farmer a couple times a year, she said.

“Often people have long-standing relationships and annually-renewed leases, folks have been working with the same renter for a while, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re communicating with each other all the time, especially about things around conservation,” she said.

Women non-operating landowners are more likely to experience a breakdown in communication with their renting farmer, she said.

Many women have been disproportionately left out of mainstream agricultural conversations and may feel less empowered or supported, and don’t feel as confident in discussions with their renter, she said.

The Land for Women program works to help them gain the expertise and gain confidence to discuss conservation and other topics with their renting farmers, Roesch-McNally said.

American Farmland Trust plans to implement the program in the Northwest in 2020.

The organization surveyed 11 states across the country – Washington, California, Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, New York, North Carolina, Ohio and Texas.

Full survey results are slated to be released this winter, including analyses of gender and agricultural experience. The information will inform American Farmland Trust’s outreach and programming to help boost conversations between landowners and renting farmers, Roesch-McNally said.

“There’s an opportunity to improve the way people are talking to each other about their goals for their land,” she said.



WSU’s Mount Vernon field day is July 11

Farmers, families, and neighbors are invited to discover how Washington State University research helps their local communities and economy at the WSU Northwestern Washington Research and Extension Center Field Day, July 11, 2019, in Mount Vernon.

Research at NWREC runs the gamut of Pacific Northwest agriculture, from spinach and potatoes to cider, berries, corn, and watermelon. Visitors to the field day can view current projects that help farmers, consumers, and local businesses and economies.

The Center is located at 16650 State Route 536, Mount Vernon, Wash. The annual field day is a free event, open to the public, and includes tours, presentations and a free barbecue dinner.

For more information, go to the event website.

OSU Malheur Experiment Station sets Farm Festival and Field Day

Oregon Department of Agriculture Director Alexis Taylor is scheduled to deliver the luncheon keynote speech during the Oregon State University Malheur Experiment Station Summer Farm Festival and Field Day, slated from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. July 10 at 595 Onion Ave., Ontario.

Station Director Stuart Reitz said Taylor is expected to talk about the future of agriculture, from new crops to what the next generation of producers will look like given that so many farmers are older.

“Where are they going to come from and how can we ensure they have viable, productive careers to hang in there with?” Reitz said.

Other scheduled events include an 8 a.m. drone demonstration by Jae Ryu of the University of Idaho; a 9 a.m. discussion about cover crops, potato irrigation and hemp; a 10:30 a.m. onion-production tour with discussions about nutrient and irrigation management as well as weed and thrips control; and a 1 p.m. hemp-production workshop and question session with Clint Shock of Scientific Ecological Services and Medicinal Botanical Seed.

Agency and vendor representatives will staff information booths.

“Obviously there is a lot of interest in hemp, and it is a new crop so we are just trying to figure out how to grow it,” Reitz said. A small hemp-growing trial is underway at the station.

Irrigation innovations and improvements remain a popular topic in the arid region, including electronically monitoring water usage and soil moisture, he said.

Drip-irrigating potatoes will be demonstrated. Reitz said drip irrigation for onions advanced and grew over the years, and “growers have been interested in seeing that expanding to other crops.”

Station Office Manager Jan Jones said the long-established event typically draws more than 200 people, including about 30 Boys & Girls Clubs youths who participate in hands-on activities.

Researchers use tiny wasp to control stinkbugs

CORVALLIS, Ore. — The samurai wasp may be small, but it is a mighty assassin of one of Oregon agriculture’s most detested pests — the brown marmorated stinkbug.

No bigger than a pinhead, the tiny wasp lays its eggs inside the eggs of stinkbugs, killing the host when they hatch. Stinkbugs first arrived in Oregon in 2004 and are a scourge to farmers, damaging high-value crops including wine grapes, blueberries, cherries and hazelnuts.

Researchers know the samurai wasp can be an effective biological control for stinkbugs. A new study from Oregon State University goes a step farther, describing how farmers can integrate the wasp as part of an overall management strategy.

David Lowenstein, an entomologist and postdoctoral research associate at OSU, led the study, which focuses on the impacts of different insecticides on wasp survival. His results found that some chemicals were highly lethal to the wasp, while others were more suitable.

The study was published recently in the Journal of Economic Entomology. Funding came from the Oregon Hazelnut Commission, Oregon Raspberry and Blackberry Commission and the USDA Specialty Crop Research Initiative, which is assisting more than 50 researchers across the U.S. studying ways to defeat the stinkbug.

Like the stinkbug, the samurai wasp is native to east Asia. It was discovered in 2016 in the Willamette Valley, and since then OSU has bred colonies of the wasp in Corvallis and at the North Willamette Research and Extension Center in Aurora, Ore., to distribute to commercial orchards.

“They are not available commercially,” Lowenstein said. “We’re the sole group that is rearing the parasitoid and trying to get it established in different parts of the state.”

However, Lowenstein said it does no good to distribute the wasps while farmers are spraying certain types of insecticides to control other pests.

For the study, Lowenstein tested the effects of nine insecticides on samurai wasps in lab and field trials. He said neonicotinoids and pyrethroids were “fairly toxic” to the wasps, while diamide insecticides were less toxic.

One reason for this is because diamide insecticides specifically target sucking and chewing insects such as filbertworm larvae in hazelnut trees, while neonicotinoids and pyrethroids are “broad-spectrum” insecticides, Lowenstein said.

“The application of this work is that, for someone who wants to benefit from biological control from the samurai wasp, first they’re going to have to time it around when they apply insecticides,” he said. “We don’t expect chemical insecticide use is going to go away. It’s just how can you integrate them together.”

Lowenstein also suggested that orchards maintain natural areas around the property where samurai wasps can retreat during crop spraying.

Stinkbugs are found in 24 of Oregon’s 36 counties. OSU has already distributed samurai wasps at 63 locations across the state for bio-control.

The wasps are not harmful to humans and do not sting people, Lowenstein said.

“There’s no way you are going to confuse this with a yellowjacket,” he said. “If you have a samurai wasp on your property you won’t even know it’s there unless you are seeing its effect, which is less stinkbugs.”

Field day shines spotlight on soil health research

A national soil health research project, including four experiments in the Pacific Northwest, will share the spotlight during Washington State University’s annual Lind Field Day.

The event begins 8:30 a.m. June 13 at the dryland research station in Lind.

Speaker Shannon Cappellazzi, of the Soil Health Institute in North Carolina, will discuss making soil health assessments useful for farmers. She will speak about the institute’s North American Project to Evaluate Soil Health Measurements, studying 31 indicators of soil health on 120 long-term experiments across Canada, the U.S. and Mexico.

Pacific Northwest researchers will be able to compare soil health assessments with wheat-based systems elsewhere throughout the continent, said Bill Schillinger, director of WSU’s dryland research station in Lind, Wash.

“It’ll be the first detailed soil health assessment from long-term farming practices in the inland Pacific Northwest across numerous sites,” Schillinger said.

Four experiments in the Pacific Northwest dryland region were selected for the project, including Schillinger’s project on farmer Ron Jirava’s farm near Ritzville, Wash., now in its 23rd year; a project on farmer Curtis Hennings’ farm near Ralston, Wash., a biosolids project in Douglas County for nearly 20 years, and a long-term Oregon State University and USDA experiment in Pendleton, Ore.

As coordinator throughout the West, Cappellazzi took soil health measurements at all four sites and sites in California, Arizona and Utah.

All coordinators like Cappellazzi will have their soil health assessments completed in the field by June 15.

“This is going to move really fast,” Schillinger said. He expects some resulting publications out of the project later in 2019, with the total project completed within 2 1/2 years. “It’s just an incredibly fast timeline for this kind of thing. Usually it takes us forever to do this stuff.”

Other topics on the agenda:

• Winter pea acres are increasing despite low prices. USDA Agricultural Research Service breeder Rebecca McGee will provide updates on dryland varieties.

• Biosolids for wheat agronomy and soil microbes, with presentations by Schillinger and USDA ARS research plant pathologist Tim Paulitz.

“There’s pros and cons of using them,” Schillinger said. “They smell when you apply them, they smell when they get rained on afterwards for a while. The plus is they provide lots of micronutrients you’d have to pay a lot of money to get otherwise.”

• Updates on WSU’s winter wheat breeding and spring wheat breeding programs from Arron Carter and Mike Pumphrey.

• Updates from WSU, the state legislature, the state grain commission, Washington Association of Wheat Growers and Pacific Northwest Canola Association.

Farmers’ fields are looking average, with May precipitation slightly half of normal and nothing slated for June, Schillinger said. Winter precipitation was average.

“We’re fortunate to be average … winter wheat’s resilient. Spring crops? We’ll see,” he said.

The Lind event is the the best-attended of all field tours hosted statewide by WSU, according to the university, and the Pacific Northwest, Schillinger said.

“Farmers like coming not only to learn what we have going on, it’s a social event, too,” Schillinger said. “I think people enjoy the day.”

The event is free and open to the public.