The seeds were planted amid severe food shortages during World War II.
In the early 1940s, global demand for vegetable seed was great and Washington state was a major player, producing spinach, beet, turnip, and cabbage seed for the world market. In fact, it dominated the cabbage seed industry, with 90 percent of the supply.
At the same time, disease was devastating local seed crops. The blight was so bad in winter 1942 that nearly the entire cabbage seed harvest was lost. A “Skagit Area Vegetable Seed Survey” recommended immediate action.
“It was a crisis,” says Debra Ann Inglis (’78 MS, ’82 PhD Plant Path.), a retired longtime professor and plant pathologist at Washington State University’s Northwestern Washington Research and Extension Center (NWREC) near Mount Vernon.
The cabbage seed calamity—and stakeholders who mobilized around it—sowed the seeds for the center, which celebrates 75 years this year. A commemorative Field Day is planned for July 13, the same day as the center’s first Field Day in 1948. Since its inception one year earlier, the center, part of WSU’s College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences, has played an integral role in agriculture in northwest Washington and beyond.
The research conducted at NWREC—on specialty potatoes, blueberries, strawberries, red raspberries, cucurbits, carrots, onions, peas, cider apples, soil, pollinators, and cabbage, beet, spinach, and other seed crops—has not only helped local farmers but has made an impact on agriculture worldwide. And, importantly, the community support that helped make the center possible continues today.
“The community, over time, has taken action on behalf of the center, and the center has taken action on behalf of the community,” says Inglis, who served as interim director of NWREC from 2004 to 2008, two years before and after the center’s revitalization.
Its state-of-the-art Agricultural Research and Technology Building opened in 2006 with support from WSU, state and federal monies, and members of the local agricultural community—just like in the beginning.
“What was really exciting for me was, at that time, I was working with the children and grandchildren of some of the people who did the same thing in the ’40s,” Inglis says. “That was really meaningful for me, to see history repeat itself.”
On June 1, 1943, the US Department of Agriculture, Washington State Department of Agriculture, and other stakeholders agreed to establish a research program to address seed crop problems. Growers, granges, community groups, and more began raising funds. WSU was asked to help staff the effort.
Thomas Randall, a horticulturist from what is now the Puyallup Research and Extension Center, went to Mount Vernon to oversee the program. Glenn S. Pound came from the USDA Bureau of Plant Industry to conduct emergency research. It was his first assignment.
Within a year, Pound broke the disease cycle by isolating cabbage seedling transplant beds from seed production fields, preventing transmission of the aphid-borne virus. Average cabbage seed crop yields jumped from 402 pounds in 1942 to 908 pounds in 1947. Growers decided they wanted a permanent program, forming what is now the Northwest Agricultural Research Foundation. “They just persevered,” Inglis says.
During its first six decades, NWREC, originally known as the Northwest Seed and Truck Crop Laboratory, was a small outfit focused on agricultural problem-solving. It was managed by the Puyallup center and employed two to four faculty scientists and about a dozen staff members, along with a few graduate and post-doctoral students.
By the 1990s, facilities were deteriorating. “Tractors were breaking down,” Inglis recalls. “Morale was low. We were working out of a cement block building that had big cracks in it. The threat of closure was very, very real, and the local agricultural community was concerned. They didn’t want it to close.”
Growers advocated for the center, chartering a plane to Pullman to make their case. A vision committee formed. Fundraising efforts procured about $2.25 million. WSU allocated $6 million.
Today, the 183-acre center has six faculty, 40 staff members, and 25 graduate students. “Our scientists,” says interim director Carol Miles, “are world-class.”
Their disciplines are vegetable seed pathology, vegetable and small fruit horticulture and pathology, soil science, and plant breeding. They explore alternative crops and herbicide substitutes, crop irrigation optimization, pollination improvements, and new ways to control diseases affecting potatoes, cruciferous seed crops, and blueberries.
They also investigate biodegradable mulches, biofuel crops, high tunnel systems, riparian buffers, pest and disease control measures for conventional and organic production systems, soil quality resilience, mechanized fruit harvest systems, vegetable grafting, and much more.
“We continue to do what we did at the start,” says Miles, a professor of vegetable horticulture at WSU since 1994. “We continue to help growers solve their problems. New issues emerge all the time, and they affect everybody. Our work extends far beyond Washington. It has worldwide significance.”
For example, Miles says, NWREC is one of four sites in the world that researches diseases affecting spinach seed crops. And the center played a pivotal role in the current international hard cider industry, partnering with Cornell University to hold classes for people from all over the world on modern hard cider production methods.
The center also hosts many agricultural-themed meetings—from congressional visits to grower workshops and gardening symposiums. The WSU Master Gardeners hold meetings at the center. So does the Washington Farm Bureau and Western Washington Agricultural Association.
“It is a hub,” says Sue Christianson (’76 Food Sci. & Tech.), who spearheaded fundraising efforts for the center’s revitalization. She and her husband, Ken, received the 2012 Weldon B. Gibson Distinguished Volunteer Award, the WSU Foundation’s highest volunteer honor.
NWREC is “a community fixture,” Christianson says. “It has withstood the test of time.”