Paterson research field could be closed as part of USDA cost-cutting plan

Kristi Pihl, Tri-City HeraldJuly 2, 2014 

A 60-acre research plot in Paterson used for key research on potatoes, sweet corn and other Mid-Columbia vegetables could be plowed under.

Terminating the research plot and moving the two scientists who manage it out of state is part of a U.S. Department of Agriculture's cost-cutting plan.

In addition, four more of the 21 employees at the USDA's Prosser Agricultural Research Service lab would be moved and the vegetable and forage crop research unit closed under the proposal before Congress.

While the USDA's Prosser lab would remain open, local officials are concerned about the research collaboration between the federal agency and 17 Washington State University scientists in Prosser. The USDA labs are at WSU's Prosser Irrigated Agriculture Research & Extension Center.

"None of our agricultural problems are related to any one discipline," said Gary Grove, director of WSU's Prosser center. "There are usually several disciplines involved. The more brains you get on something, the faster you are going to solve it."

He said losing any of the USDA's scientists will have an impact.

The research field, which has been used for 25 years, is the site of more than 20 ongoing research projects.

It's where researchers conduct long-term field experiments on managing water, nutrients, weeds and pests, said Ashok Alva, the federal agency's Prosser research leader and location coordinator.

He and fellow researcher Hal Collins are scheduled to be transferred to another state under the proposal.

Alva, who specializes in potatoes and nutrient and irrigation management, said he has seen nothing in writing about the proposed changes. He was notified two weeks ago and told the decision would be made in 30 days.

It's unclear how much the closure is expected to save.

The Herald was unable to reach Sandy Miller Hays, a spokeswoman for the Agricultural Research Service, on Wednesday.

The decision is supposed to be made by the House Appropriations Committee this month but U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Pasco, has asked for more time and for the proposal in writing.

"Congressman Hastings was concerned to hear that this drastic plan was announced without any stakeholder input and still has a number of questions about the proposal, " said Neal Kirby, Hastings' spokesman. "Our staff has been and continues to be engaged with industry stakeholders and WSU, and is looking forward to closely reviewing their written proposal."

"The (Agricultural Research Service) director said this was intended to free up funding to reinvest in the current alfalfa program at Prosser and to create a new pulse crop research program," Kirby said. Chickpeas, lentils and dried peas are examples of pulse crops.

The project to be closed is the cropping systems for irrigated agriculture research at the Paterson research plot in collaboration with AgriNorthwest.

Research also is done on other crops including potatoes, beans, peas, sweet corn, switchgrass and canola. The results have helped form recommendations for growing potatoes and sweet corn, Alva said.

And researchers have used the plot to help determine how best to grow canola and for screening bean varieties to determine which ones are most resistant to a major bean disease called white mold.

Washington grows the second-largest volume of potatoes and the most sweet corn in the nation.

The state's canola acres have been climbing, and WSU researchers have been actively encouraging farmers to consider growing canola because it can help with weed control and add to the yield of future wheat crops in the same soil.

Alva said the research plot has been an excellent location for long-term research projects that specifically apply to growing conditions in the Lower Columbia Basin.

The field has been used for cooperative research efforts by WSU, the University of Washington and industry members, he said.

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-- Kristi Pihl: 509-582-1512; kpihl@tricityherald.com

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