PENDLETON - Soft white wheat dominates agriculture in the Pendleton area, and brings farmers $200 million per year in Oregon. But Oregon State University Agricultural Experiment Station scientists are on the lookout for alternative "rotation" crops for wheat.
Rotation crops are needed to help rest the soil or build up nitrogen and organic matter, and they help prevent soil erosion on fallow wheat fields. Researching crops new to the region also helps expand and diversify possibilities for Oregon's dryland agriculture.
William Payne is in charge of testing a whole group of crops "new" to the Columbia Basin. As a new dryland agronomist at OSU's Columbia Basin Agricultural Research Center, Payne brings a wealth of experience researching alternate dryland crops. He spent about a decade as a dryland agronomist in Niger and other west African countries and India before moving to his Pendleton job.
Some of the same kinds of crops he is testing as new to the Pendleton region are similar or the same to those he researched overseas.
Payne and his colleagues are focusing their research on the following crops showing potential in the Columbia Basin, including:
- White and narrow-leafed lupin: These legumes have been cultivated for thousands of years in the Mediterranean and in the Nile Valley. Lupins can be used as green manures, as they fix nitrogen. With a high oil and protein content, lupins are used as human and cattle food in other regions of the world. Australia grows more than 3 million acres of the drought-tolerant narrow leafed lupin.
- Sorghum: A corn-like grass native to Africa and Asia, sorghum is cultivated worldwide for fodder, grain and syrup. In the United States, sorghum is grown mainly as livestock feed and for some industrial uses including starch for adhesives, paper and fabric coatings and alcohol production. It is more drought-tolerant than other grain crops. It has a higher protein content than corn. There is a potential export market for sorghum as food to India, Japan and Europe.
- Pearl millet: It ranks as the world's fourth most important tropical food cereal, especially in semi-arid Africa and India. Pearl millet is well adapted to sandy soils with low fertility. In the United States it is mostly used as a feed grain. It is higher in crude protein and more tolerant to heat and drought than corn.
- Teff: It is mainly grown as a cereal crop in Ethiopia. In the United States it is largely an experimental crop, with limited use as a flour by specialty mills or used as a late-planted livestock forage. Teff has been used as a substitute for summer fallowing of wheat in Kenya.
- Pigeon pea - A vigorous, drought-tolerant legume, it is widely grown in subtropical and tropical regions as a human food and animal forage. Pigeon peas are extremely heat- and drought-tolerant, and can be marketed as dry peas. India imports pigeon peas and is a potential export market for U.S. growers. The crop has potential in this country as fodder.
- Soybeans and corn: Although not new, these crops have recent genetic improvements and are being re-evaluated as potential crops in dryland Pacific Northwest areas. Four varieties of soybeans and four varieties of corn are being tested at Columbia Basin.
"For any of these crops to be appropriate for rotation with wheat, each must be adapted to local soil and weather conditions," Payne said. "They must also be economically viable in terms of price and market potential. And they must fit into management schemes that benefit the wheat crop."
Payne will assess market viability and water use in each crop. Collaborating with plant breeders around the country, he will test a wide range of genotypes from each species in order to find the strains best suited for the Columbia Basin's unique growing conditions.