No matter what happens to the economy, people have to eat.

That one idea has cushioned Umatilla County from much of the recession, according to Phil Hamm, plant pathologist supervisor of Oregon State University’s Hermiston Agricultural Research and Extension Center.

“Agriculture is the reason our economy has not suffered like other places. People still need to eat,” Hamm said. “Lots of things have gone on here that have diversified our base, but when you get down to it, the base is agricultural.”

About 57 different crops are currently grown in the Columbia Basin on both sides of the Columbia River, and of those crops, 37 are grown in Oregon.

“It’s a very diversified growing region, unlike any other place,” Hamm said. “We don’t grow pineapple here, we don’t grow papaya and things like that, but there are very few things we can’t grow.”

Hamm compared the Columbia Basin to California’s San Joaquin Valley in the scope of agricultural production. Well known for its diversity, the San Joaquin Valley produces a large portion of the nation’s produce. Hamm said the Columbia Basin produces higher yield and higher quality crops than the San Joaquin Valley.

“We have the largest onion grower in the U.S. here. The largest potato grower has his largest farm here,” Hamm said. Hamm attributes this area’s agricultural success to five factors:

• Good soil

• Long growing season

• Water free of contaminants

• Low elevation and light intensity

• The combination of warm days and cool nights.

All of those elements combine to give growers a higher yield per acre and higher-quality crops.

For example, it is the combination of warm days and cool nights that gives Hermiston watermelons an extra sweetness and potatoes extra starch. During the day, warm temperatures allow plants to produce extra energy, stored as either sugar or starch, depending on the plant. At night, plants use that energy, but the colder the temperature, the less energy the plant uses.

“If you’re in California, they have 95-degree (fahrenheit) days and 85-degree nights. We have 95-degree days and 65-degree nights,” Hamm said. “The amount of sugar the plant needs to stay alive is less in the cooler nights, so they don’t use up the energy stores, which makes a sweeter watermelon.”

For Hamm, the only thing holding back the Columbia Basin from becoming the next San Joaquin Valley is water. Because of limited availability and strict state regulations, Hamm said about 100,000 acres of land is underutilized in this area.

“If we could figure our issues related to water, if we could find water resources, we could add 100,000 new acres of (crops). We would have a huge economic impact on our area,” Hamm said.

In addition to natural factors, Hamm said agriculture has flourished in this area because growers are willing to try new technology and ideas and local communities have a better grasp on the importance of agriculture.

“There are many people in cities who think produce comes from the back of a grocery store. When they run out of something, they go to the back and bring out more,” Hamm said. “We know there is a grower, a farmer somewhere growing that food. That’s a concept being lost. As the population of Umatilla County grows, people are not as connected with the area’s agricultural base as in the past.”

Hamm said he hopes that awareness will increase with school initiatives and local projects, such as community gardens coming to Hermiston and Umatilla.

“We have the cheapest food in the world, and people don’t appreciate the value of what they’ve got because its isn’t very expensive,” he said. “Kids are the policy makers of the future. They need to have an understanding of agriculture and why it is so important. We’re living in one of the most unique and important agricultural regions in the world. They need to understand that.”

 

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