Eastern Oregon isn’t just for potatoes any more.
Diversification is the name of the industry, and the Columbia Basin now hosts more than 200 different crops from the familiar to the exotic.
“We are famous for a few crops, but there are some really diverse crops being grown here,” said Silvia Rondon, an entomologist at Oregon State University’s Hermiston Agricultural Research and Extension Center, “The Columbia Basin is a prime site for growing any crops because we have excellent soil, excellent temperature, long days, cool nights, and we have a lot of water. Those things have made this really a prime site for growing crops.”
While potatoes — Oregon, Washington and Idaho produce more than 55 percent of all potatoes grown in the United States — and onions continue to flourish in Umatilla and Morrow counties, the blueberry industry is flourishing and growers are testing the waters with quinoa, a grain crop with cereal-like edible seeds.
Blueberries, typically associated with Western Oregon have increased “tremendously” in this area, according to Rondon, driven in part by droughts in California. Economic drivers, such as the establishment of Pioneer Seed in Hermiston, have driven increases in other crops, such as seed corn, which has also seen a large increase in the past five years.
“If we’re expanding in our production area, that means there’s a demand,” Rondon said. “Besides all of the environmental qualities of this area, we also have the different facilities in our ports nearby where you can transport all your products by water, train, (or) by land.”
The biggest challenge toward bringing in a new crop is the amount of time needed to gather data and testing, Rondon said. With the case of blueberries, for example, Umatilla County will need to establish the crop and gather years of data before any conclusions can be made regarding yield and quality between Eastern Oregon blueberries and those from other areas.
Diversification does have other benefits, however. With diverse crops and rotations, it is harder for pests and diseases to thrive or resist treatments. Rondon points to the Midwest and the difficulties with having a corn monoculture where insects and diseases take hold quickly, compared to Eastern Oregon with a wide crop base.
“Being diverse is a really good thing for many reasons,” she said. “I think people know that we grow, here in this area, potatoes, there is wheat, there is corn, there is watermelon, but there is so much more to the list.”