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Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center, WSU Prosser

HistoryLink.org Essay 7684 : Printer-Friendly Format

Washington State College (later WSU) established the Irrigation Experiment Station at Prosser in 1919. The Washington Irrigation Institute recommended such a program to study the problems faced by farmers, orchardists, and ranchers in the dry central part of the state. The station employed scientists from the college in Pullman, who partnered with scientists from the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). In the early years a road was built and water was pumped from the Sunnyside Canal. Crops such as potatoes, corn, and wheat were planted. The station contended with weeds and dust storms. It grew slowly, with budget cuts during the Depression years. Then World War II brought a huge demand for increased crop yields. The station's research in how to combat plant diseases and pests, how to irrigate, and how to increase crop yields led to increased crop production in the Columbia Basin and across the state. After the war, the station grew as funding came in from industry organizations such as the Washington Hop Commission. The Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center, as it is now known, continues to provide support and research for Washington state irrigated agriculture. Irrigated agriculture, including grapes for the wine industry, wheat, hops, alfalfa, and apple and cherry orchards, comprises some 60 crops that add up to two-thirds of the state's agriculture and bring in some $3 billion in revenue annually. The center is one of the major employers of Prosser.

Farming in Central Washington

At the turn of the twentieth century, most large-scale agricultural development in the state was in the Palouse region, mainly in Whitman County, an area that generally received enough rainfall for crops. Washington State College's College of Agriculture at Pullman was located near the Palouse region, where it could support studies in the region. But by the 1910s, farmers in the central part of the state began planting crops and using irrigation to water them. The WSC College of Agriculture was far removed from these areas. 

The Washington Irrigation Institute recognized that research by the WSC College of Agriculture would greatly benefit the growing farming communities in Central Washington. This organization asked Mrs. Ina P. Williams, a new state representative from Yakima, to introduce a bill in the state legislature to create an irrigation experiment station. She lobbied the legislature and it passed the bill in March 1917. The Irrigation Experiment Station (IES) would be operated as a branch of the Washington Agriculture Experiment Station of Washington State College. 

Choosing Prosser

The bill authorized a recommendations committee to select a site. The committee looked at available acreage in Wenatchee, Yakima, Grandview, Toppenish, Ellensburg, Kennewick, Prosser, and many other towns across Eastern Washington. Grandview thought it was the most logical site for the station. Grandview officials even asked Prosser business people to promote their site and some 50 did so. 

The committee finally recommended a 200-acre site at Prosser. It selected this site because it had several soil types for experimentation. The site contained slopes that faced all directions, important for experimentation in crop rotation and crop yield. The hilly terrain would also guarantee that seepage from run off from the irrigation system would be minimal.

The WSC Board of Regents agreed with the committee's recommendation. In early October 1917, the board announced that it had selected Prosser as the location for the Irrigation Experiment Station. The proposed site was about one mile northwest of North Prosser above the Sunnyside Canal. A few days later, WSC president E. O. Holland visited Prosser, spoke at Buena Vista Grange Hall and visited the proposed site.

Prosser Clears the Land

The Northern Pacific Railroad and state Commissioner of Agriculture E. F. Benson donated part of the land. F. M. Rothrock also sold an additional 65 acres. The railroad owned an additional 80 acres of nearby land that it reserved for possible future use by WSC.

In January 1918, William N. Peas of Seattle and Duncan Dunn of North Yakima of the WSC Board of Regents visited the Prosser site. They reminded the townspeople that though the legislature had authorized the station, it had not yet appropriated any funds for it. 

Even so, the locals were excited about the research station. The Prosser Community Club donated $3,000 for development of the site. On May 18, 1918, volunteers cleared brush.  City fathers declared a local holiday on May 28 so that volunteers could continue to clean up. About 115 men, women, and children worked for eight hours stacking and burning brush. They cleared about 70 acres in one day. E. J. Miller, C. G. Baker, F. R. Schoenberg, and U. S. Case led teams of workers from Prosser and Kiona-Benton to accomplish this amazing feat.

In the meantime, local leaders began a campaign to get funding for the Irrigation Experiment Station. They sent telegrams to influential people around the state, including Commissioner of Agriculture Benson. Finally, the state allocated $35,000 to operate the irrigation station from April 1, 1919 to March 31, 1921. To cover operating costs, the station would be allowed to sell the products grown.

Wind, Rabbits, and Weeds

Work began in earnest once funds became available. On April 13, volunteers returned to the site to clear more ground. Roy P. Bean took over as superintendent and animal scientist on May 1, 1919. Two pumps were installed to carry water from the Sunnyside Canal to supply the station. The first water was pumped on May 24. The state contributed $8,000 to build a road to the station.

During the first two years, the staff prepared land for irrigation. They completed most of this work with horses and mules. They planted potatoes, corn, millet, alfalfa, winter wheat, rye, and sweet clover. There was a setback on April 1, 1921, when a two-day dust storm blew away one to four inches of topsoil. The station lost 75 percent of its alfalfa crop. The station also suffered from rabbit infestation and in 1922 lost its entire soybean crop to rabbits. Ultimately certain crops were fenced and rabbit drives were held to take care of the problem. They also had to fight weeds, which choked out crops and clogged irrigation canals.

Building and Growing

The site needed many support buildings. The Prosser Community Club offered a portion of its building as a temporary office. In 1920, the station added two cottages, a machine shed, and a silo. In 1922, the office staff moved into a rented house. In 1923, a dairy barn, two poultry houses, and a two-story house dotted the landscape. A 160-foot-deep well supplied water to the main buildings and feed lots. The first well in 1920 had gas-powered pump for bringing water to office building and feed lots. The station also maintained a large water reservoir that fed the main system using gravity flow lines.

From the beginning, the Irrigation Experiment Station tried to be a good neighbor. Officials held what they called Feeder Days. This was a chance for local farmers and anyone else interested to come to the station and view the animal feed experiments. They also held Field Days, which allowed interested people to view crops.

Apples, Cows, Sheep

In 1922, the beginning of a long-standing affiliation with the U. S. Department of Agriculture began when USDA scientist Coulsen C. Wright arrived to assist with irrigation research. Wright was the first of many scientists who would work closely with the irrigation station through the years. 

By 1923, all 200 acres were being irrigated. The first apple orchard was planted. Experiments were beginning with different irrigation methods. Staffers also studied animal feeding problems. They used grains and forage crops grown onsite to feed cows and sheep, which the college bought. In 1926, Pacific Power and Light Company wired the station for electricity. 

Depression Era

It seemed the experiment station was well on its way. But then came the Great Depression. The station's budget was cut to $16,000, less than half of its first biennial budget. There were only four staff members at the time and one had to be laid off. The three remaining staff members suffered a 20 percent reduction in salary. As if this wasn't hard enough, superintendent Bean was charged by a bull on July 11, 1929, and died from his wounds. WSC appointed Harry Singleton to take his place.

The IES stayed solvent only because it received $8,000 from the Governor's Emergency Fund.  The station also benefited from the Works Progress Administration, which sent workers to build another access road. In 1937, partial funding was restored. The first motorized tractor arrived on site. About 200 varieties of wine grapes were planted. WSC hired C. Emil Smith for soil research and others to study plant diseases. 

Also that year, the station entered a partnership with the state prison in Walla Walla. Staffers set up experiments using different crop varieties and fertilizer on prison property. The prison provided labor, and station personnel supervised the experiments. This project lasted for eight years. Walter J. Clore began landscaping the grounds and conducting experiments on chrysanthemums. In 1938, W. A. Harvey began the first studies on weed control. 

War Years

After the United States entered World War II, the government asked farmers across the country to increase agricultural production. Most areas suffered from labor shortages, rationing of farm machinery, and shortage of fertilizer, but the Irrigation Experiment Station was able to help the effort by studying plant diseases, soil conservation, and insects. 

Experiments in freezing fruits and vegetables could also be very beneficial for long term storage of perishable foodstuffs. The station even tried rubber-producing plants and it grew a victory garden. During this time, wheat production was especially successful. Poultry and milk production also developed into major industries.

Post-War Years

After the war, the staff quickly increased and the mission broadened. More money was available and the Roza Canal and Columbia Basin Irrigation projects promised to bring more land under irrigation. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, more people studied insect control. Soon there were 35 people on staff, including new representatives from the USDA. These people studied use of the alkali bee and the leaf cutter bee to pollinate alfalfa. They also studied ways to control the cherry fruit fly and insects that attacked asparagus, grapes, and hops. Specific studies on hops began in 1948. In 1956, Washington State College hired Cal Skotland as a plant pathologist to study hop diseases. As a result of this program, the yield and quality of hops greatly improved.

The site grew physically too. The station added a greenhouse to the grounds in 1946. In 1950, the west building was erected for additional lab space and offices. This building contained a conference room and library. Washington State College purchased some war surplus buildings from McCaw Hospital in Walla Walla. In 1951, the station bought four houses in Kennewick and moved them to Prosser to be used as residences for the farm foreman and others. It bought three more houses and a service station in Richland and moved them to the IES's property near Othello. A new administration building opened on May 15, 1958. The station erected another greenhouse in 1959. In 1963, Rasmussen B-E-C-K, Inc. of Sunnyside built Hamilton Hall, named after H. Rodgers Hamilton, fruit grower from Okanogan and former member of the WSU Board of Regents. 

Clore added a Japanese garden near Hamilton Hall in 1963. Harold E. Willmsen, a nursery man in Grandview and longtime supporter of the station, died in 1964 and bequeathed his entire estate to the station, with a portion earmarked for landscaping. In his honor, J. Paul Miller began designing the Harold E. Willmsen Memorial Gardens but died before the garden was completed. Clore and Willard S. Summers, WSU landscape horticulturist, completed the garden in 1966. The garden includes Miller's Japanese peony collection, which his widow donated, named the J. Paul Miller Peony Collection. The garden was formally dedicated on October 10, 1967. In 1998, budget cuts in 1998 threatened to destroy it. Through Clore's effort it was saved but its care completely turned over to volunteers and one part-time employee.

Potatoes, Hops, and Asparagus

As the site grew, so did its reputation. In 1963, the Washington Potato Commission supplied funds to study potato diseases. In 1969, 31 private organizations gave money including the Washington Mint Commission, the Oregon Prune Marketing Committee, and the Washington Hop Commission. Since most hops in the United States are grown in the Yakima Valley, the Washington Hop Commission, National Hop Research Council, and Anheuser-Busch all provided funding for research. Anheuser-Busch funded a new building specifically for hop research. The IES studied pests and diseases that harmed hop growth. 

The Washington Asparagus Association also supported research. International experts came to the site, including representatives from Belgium, Iran, Egypt, Pakistan, Poland, Canada, Japan, and Romania.

Over the years, the Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center (IAREC), as it is now known, has conducted many important studies that have benefited Washington farmers, orchardists, and ranchers. Since the beginning, the center conducted research on alfalfa.  Scientists developed new varieties that could withstand cold winters and resist blight. They also discovered how phosphorous could be used to fertilize alfalfa.

Wine, Apples, and Cherries

The state wine industry has benefited from the research done here. The center experimented with wines starting in 1965. They tried planting grapes in different soil types and microclimates. Before this, growers had stuck mainly to Concord grapes. Scientists developed methods to fight common pests and more efficient ways to prune vines so that more fruit was produced. They developed methods to lessen damage caused by herbicide drift.

Washington became the nation's largest producer of apples, thanks in part to research conducted here. Related research included how to handle fruit so it could withstand shipment and cold storage. Staffers showed how Red Delicious apples could make good juice, the backbone of today's Tree-Top Company, headquartered in Selah, Washington. Scientists also developed virus-free fruit trees. They recommended perennial rye grass as a cover crop in orchards because it chokes out weeds, doesn't spread under trees, and is disease resistant and durable.

Staff scientists developed the Rainier cherry as an eating cherry. In the 1940s, the center studied viruses of cherry trees and successfully eliminated most viruses. The center established a national repository of virus free fruit trees after the work done here.

Wheat and Beans

Grain production is very important in Eastern Washington, and wheat is one of the largest crops. IAREC scientists found a way to eradicate the Russian wheat aphid, which had cost growers $10 million a year.

The center developed beans that matured earlier and resisted root rot, in particular, small red, pinto, and pink beans. These varieties had a shorter vine and matured earlier. Dark red kidney and light red kidney beans developed here are the only red kidney beans resistant to curly top and mosiac.

The center tested different irrigation methods, especially sprinkler types. Prior to irrigation, crops grown were mainly annuals, such as alfalfa, wheat, potatoes, and sugar beets. After World War II, more high-value crops such as hops, grapes, and fruit trees became popular. Scientists tested drip irrigation on hop fields, which was very successful. They also tried adding chemicals into the irrigation system and developed wind machines to protect crops against cold. 

Serving Irrigated Agriculture Today

Today, the IAREC consists of four main units: The H. P. Singleton Headquarters Unit, the Roza Unit, Pear Acres, and the Othello Unit. The H. P. Singleton Headquarters Unit, a 191-acre site, consists of a laboratory and office building, greenhouses, dormitory, cold storage facilities, and other support facilities. It also includes about 120 acres of research sites. The Roza Unit, a 320-acre site located three miles north of headquarters, includes research sites using different types of irrigation systems. Pear Acres, a 29-acre tract also three miles north of the headquarters, provides more field research. The Othello Unit encompasses 427 acres near Othello, Washington. This unit provides research sites for WSU faculty from the main campus and for projects developed by Washington State Crop Improvement Association.

The center offers studies in Animal Science, Biosystems Engineering, Crop and Soil Science, Entomology, Food Science and Human Nutrition, Horticulture and Landscape Architecture, and Plant Pathology. There are 23 research and extension scientists and faculty plus about 80 other employees who work at the four main units. Staff scientists partner with the United States Department of Agriculture and the Washington State Department of Agriculture to develop better methods of irrigation. The role that IAREC plays in the development of increased productivity, disease-resistant crops, efficient pesticide use, and water conservation will serve the state's agricultural base for decades to come.

Sources:
"Prosser Gets Experiment Farm," Independent Record (Prosser), October 18, 1917, p. 1; "Holland Delivers Able Address," Ibid., October 25, 1917, p. 1; "Prosser Lands Experiment Farm," Ibid., January 31, 1918, p. 1; "Clear 70 Acres by Day's Work," Ibid., May 30, 1918, p. 1; H. P. Singleton, The Irrigation Experiment Station: From the Beginning to July 1, 1965 (no publisher [likely IAREC], 1980), pamphlet available at Proser Public Library; Ed Proebsting, A History of Accomplishment: Agriculture's Implicit Partnership with WSU Prosser, no publication data, pamphlet available from the Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center; Paul Fridlund, "Two Fronts: A Small Town at War," Fairfield, WA: Ye Galleon Press, 1984); Paul Fridlund, Prosser 1910-20: Going Back (Fairfield: Ye Galleon Press, 1985); Paul Fridlund, Prosser, 1964-74: Changing Times (Fairfield: Ye Galleon Press, 1987); Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center, WSU Prosser website accessed February 6, 2006 (http://www.prosser.wsu.edu/).


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Wheat field in Horse Heaven Hills, Benton County, 1995
Photo by Elizabeth Gibson


Prosser, 2003
Photo by Terrence L. Day, Courtesy Washington State University


Potato field, Walla Walla County, 1994
Photo by Elizabeth Gibson


Canola field, Walla Walla County, 1998
Photo by Elizabeth Gibson


 
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