Gas, Bend to Hermiston via Boardman, 436 miles (round-trip) at $3.20/gallon $55.81
Lodging (2 nights with breakfast), Oxford Suites, Hermiston $270
Dinner, Midway Tavern, Hermiston $15
Lunch, Macario’s, Boardman $9.95
Admission, SAGE Center $5
Dinner, Walker’s Farm Kitchen, Hermiston $65
Lunch, Willow Creek Diner, Heppner $10.50
If you go
• Boardman Chamber of Commerce. 206 N. Main St., Boardman; 541-481-3014, www.boardmanchamber.org
• FairDeal Inn. 100 First St., Boardman; 541-481-2441. www.fairdealinn.com. Rates from $70
• Oak Tree Inn. 1110 S.E. Fourth St., Hermiston; 541-567-2330, 888-456-8733, www.oaktreeinn.com. Rates from $79
• Oxford Suites. 1050 N. First St., Hermiston; 541-564-8000, 888-545-7848, www.oxfordsuiteshermiston.com. Rates from $125
• River Lodge & Grill. 6 Marine Drive, Boardman; 541-481-6800, 888-988-2009, www.riverlodgeandgrill.com. Rates from $104
• Hale’s Restaurant & Lounge. 174 E. Main St., Hermiston; 541-567-7975, www.facebook.com. Three meals every day. Moderate.
• Macario’s Mexican Restaurant. 302 Olson Road, Boardman; 541-481-2028. Lunch and dinner. Budget and moderate.
• Midway Tavern. 1750 N. First St., Hermiston; 541-567-5180. Lunch and dinner. Budget.
• The Sunrise at Boardman. 101 N.W. Front St., Boardman; 541-481-7473, www.thesunriseatboardman.com. Three meals every day. Budget and moderate.
• Walker’s Farm Kitchen. 920 S.E. Fourth St., Hermiston; 541-289-3333, www.walkersfarmkitchen.com. Lunch Tuesday to Saturday, dinner Thursday to Saturday. Moderate to expensive.
• Willow Creek Diner. 348 N. Main St., Heppner. 541-676-5023, www.facebook.com. Breakfast and lunch Sunday to Friday. Budget and moderate.
• SAGE Center. 101 Olson Road, Boardman; 541-481-7243, www.visitsage.com
• Morrow County Museum. 444 N. Main St., Heppner; 541-676-5524, www.heppnerchamber.com/history-museum
Unlike many Central Oregonians, I’m not a farm boy.
I didn’t grow up with cattle and sheep, nor with potatoes, apples or alfalfa. I didn’t spend my teen years mending fences on the range or gathering fruit from an orchard. But I was imbued with great respect for those who produce the food that winds up on our dinner tables, and with the various industries that make this possible.
When I encounter a facility like the new SAGE Center at the Port of Morrow, I’m excited. Not only am I thrilled for the opportunity to learn more about what I put in my belly; I’m also delighted that food producers are taking seriously the educational aspect of their role.
SAGE is an acronym for “sustainable agriculture and energy.” The SAGE Center, which opened in June, is a one-stop visitor center that will appeal to anyone with an interest in what makes things tick.
This beautiful new building may have elements of an industrial tour, but it is more like a museum of agricultural science and engineering. Displays also delve into pioneer farming history and include numerous interactive exhibits. Guests are invited to go on a hot-air balloon ride and to drive a modern “auto-steering” tractor through the fields.
Until the opening of the SAGE Center, it was hard for the average traveler to get a grasp of the magnitude of Morrow County’s agricultural operations. Now, I’ve been awakened to a new appreciation of this corner of northeastern Oregon.
Port of Morrow
Let’s face it: There’s not a lot to see along Interstate 84 between The Dalles and Pendleton or the Tri-Cities. There’s the Columbia River to your left as you drive east, of course. There are a couple of stream crossings, a couple of small towns, the broad John Day Dam and occasional ranchland. For the most part, however, this is barren country, shocking perhaps given the vast amount of water that flows toward the Pacific Ocean on the north side of the freeway.
The forefathers of Morrow County recognized the anomaly when they first began to homestead the region in the late 19th century. There was plenty of sun (300 days a year) and the soil was rich, but rainfall was minimal — only about 8 inches a year. Farmers needed to get water to their crops. Fortunately, snowmelt from the Blue Mountains fed the Willow Creek drainage, and small-scale irrigation progressed as a first step.
Little more than a century later, Morrow County has become one of Oregon’s breadbaskets. The development of large and more sophisticated irrigation systems went hand-in-hand with Columbia River dam construction from the 1930s to 1970s. Coupled with the evolution of modern transportation and communication, the region’s food producers are thriving.
A key moment was the creation of the Port of Morrow in 1959. The port, Oregon’s second largest, brought life back to Boardman. Homesteaded in 1903 by Samuel Boardman, who later became the first superintendent of the Oregon State Parks System, the riverfront town was incorporated shortly after World War I. But when construction of the John Day Dam in the 1960s caused the waters of Lake Umatilla to inundate the town site, citizens rebuilt their homes and businesses on higher ground, just to the south.
It goes without saying that there are no historical structures in Boardman today, even though the community of 3,300 is the population hub of Morrow County.
The Port of Morrow is a bustling center for food-processing activities, comprising three separate industrial parks that cover more than 12,000 riverside acres. Potatoes and onions are its leading products, with Lamb Weston, a leading brand of ConAgra packaged foods, and the unaffiliated Oregon Potato Co. its two largest employers. Tillamook Cheese has a large processing facility; Portview Ranches is a livestock purveyor. A Cargill grain-shipping facility stands nearby.
Several other tenants focus their activities on renewable energy and transportation. Pacific Ethanol can produce up to 40 million gallons of ethanol a year from grains. ZeaChem’s refinery converts wood-chip waste into ethanol. Reklaim Technologies recycles the rubber of scrap tires into carbon and fuel products. An Australian firm, Ambre Energy, is bidding to construct a coal-export terminal. And two energy facilities powered by natural gas are owned and operated by Portland General Electric and by the Avista Corp.
Most of these industries — from agriculture to transportation to energy — are well represented at the $6 million SAGE Center. The 23,000-square-foot facility was built by the Port of Morrow and was the brainchild of Port General Manager Gary Neal, who was disappointed that Tillamook Cheese didn’t add its own visitor center when it built a Boardman plant.
Plans for the SAGE Center got off the ground in 2009 when the state Legislature offered $2.27 million in state lottery money. The state granted $1.8 million more in 2011, and the port and local companies contributed the balance.
The first thing you’ll see upon entering is a dynamic model of potato processing, from raw potatoes to “twister fries.” You’ll see spuds being tumbled and washed, sorted, steam-peeled, cut, fried, seasoned and packaged. The conveyor belt climbs past a stairway and back down the other side.
But without water, potatoes couldn’t grow. Thus the SAGE Center invests a great deal of exhibit space to a primer on irrigation, and in doing so contributed to my own education.
By 1975, 11 dams crossed the main stem of the Columbia River, with others on major tributaries. Of the group, the completion of the McNary Dam (1957), upstream of Boardman near Umatilla, and the John Day Dam (1971), downstream near Rufus, were key to the growth of Morrow County agriculture. Their construction created large slack-water reservoirs for flood control, navigational ease and irrigation, and the dams themselves provided a tremendous amount of hydroelectricity.
Traditional irrigation includes highly inefficient surface flooding, and more modern sprinkler systems and drip irrigation. But the development in the late 1960s of center-pivot irrigation systems, fed by water pumped from Columbia, was revolutionary for area farmers.
Because state and federal laws limit the amount of water that can be taken from the Columbia, these computer-guided systems are ideal, enabling farmers to apply precise amounts of water and fertilizer to their crops. The careful distribution of irrigation waters maximized crop yields while reducing farm costs, leading to a greater diversity of crops and the need for the large food-processing facilities found today at the Port of Morrow.
What crops are these? A central display in the SAGE Center lists numerous grains (wheat, barley and alfalfa), vegetables (potatoes, onions, carrots, peas, corn, green beans, lima beans and garbanzo beans) and fruits (apples, grapes, blueberries, watermelon and cantaloupe), among other crops.
And then there’s the dairy industry, ranked as the second leading agricultural commodity in Oregon. There’s milk, certainly, but also cheese. In fact, more Tillamook Cheese is now produced in Boardman than in Tillamook — about 375,000 pounds daily from about 400,000 gallons of milk.
Almost any traveler who has driven I-84, from Boardman southeast toward Hermiston, has remarked upon the seemingly endless expanse of skinny hardwood trees that follow the freeway for mile after mile. This is the GreenWood Tree Farm, 25,000 acres (about 18,000 football fields) of lightweight, rapidly growing Pacific albus trees.
The SAGE Center taught me about these, as well. More than 435,000 trees are planted and harvested each year on a rotating cycle, so that some are almost always ready for harvest. Mature trees go into lumber and veneer at Collins Management Corp.’s Upper Columbia Mill. Younger trees are grown specifically for wood chips, used by ZeaChem in developing biofuels and biochemicals in their Boardman plant.
GreenWood is also known for using one of the largest drip irrigation systems in the world, with 20,000 miles of drip tube and more than 26 million drip emitters. Tree farm managers consult weather forecasts, tree water-use data, and in-field moisture sensors to determine when and how much to water their crops.
Another business with multiple-use production is the Pacific Ethanol plant, as described at the SAGE Center. Corn shipped to Boardman is ground into meal, added to water and heated to create a mash that becomes a fermentable sugar with the addition of enzymes. This mash is then cooled, mixed with yeast, converted into alcohol and distilled into fuel-grade ethanol.
But that’s not the end of the process. The remaining corn byproduct, including fibers and oils, is sold as a high-protein animal feed called wet distillers grain. In all, this single factory can produce 40 million gallons of ethanol and 400,000 tons of wet distillers grain in a single year.
Additional exhibits in the SAGE Center detail a diversity of energy projects, from the Coyote Springs steam-power plant that runs many Port of Morrow businesses, to the Shepherds Flat Wind Farm, 30 square miles of wind-powered turbines that produce enough electricity to power more than 200,000 homes.
The little boy in me was fascinated with the “auto-steering” tractor. I climbed into the driver’s seat and took the challenge of testing my manual skills versus the modern machine’s computerized efficiency, guided by a global positioning system (GPS). I thought I did well, planting 20,257 seeds per acre during my brief stint at the wheel. Had I allowed GPS to take over, though, that number would have been nearly double — 38,000 per acre.
This was my lesson: “These systems communicate with satellites to steer tractors along precise rows during plowing, seeding, fertilizing and harvesting — no matter how large the field or how rough or hilly the terrain. (They) reduce driver fatigue, improve fuel efficiency, increase operating speed, allow farmers to use wider implements, and even allow farmers to extend operating hours by working in low light conditions.” Next time, I’ll leave it to technology.
Down the road
Morrow County covers more than 2,000 square miles, yet its total population is only about 11,300, similar to that of Prineville. The county seat is at Heppner, a town of just 1,300 people on state Highway 74, an hour’s drive south of Boardman and I-84.
Route 74 follows Willow Creek upstream from the Columbia toward the Blue Mountains. In the mid-19th century, pioneer cattlemen who found an abundance of natural rye drove their herds into the area to pasture. But overgrazing led ranching to be supplanted by farming in the 1880s, especially when rail lines improved market access and encouraged wheat production.
Heppner, founded in 1873 on a Pendleton-to-The Dalles stagecoach line, became the hub of government 11 years later. By the start of the 20th century, improved transportation made the town a trade center for wheat, alfalfa and livestock. Then came disaster.
On June 14, 1903, a flash flood broke through a debris dam on Willow Creek, uphill from the little town, raced through a canyon and submerged the entire downtown. Nearly 250 people, about a quarter of the population, were drowned, making this the deadliest natural disaster in Oregon history. But the town quickly rebuilt.
Among the first structures built in the reconstructed city was the Morrow County Courthouse. It has been in continuous use ever since. Built atop a low bluff of locally quarried basalt, it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985.
History buffs will want to visit the town’s Morrow County Museum, open April to October with sections on heritage and agriculture. But even in winter, the exterior of the museum is fascinating. A long mural covers the entire western wall of a former granary, outside of which are numerous antique farm machines, including a combine and a steam tractor.
Incidentally, Heppner has been safe from further flash floods since 1983, when the Willow Creek Dam on the southern outskirts of the town was completed.
For lodging and dining, I headed from Boardman into Hermiston, 22 miles east: With a population of about 17,000, it offered many more hospitality options. The centrally located Oxford Suites provided a comfortable and well-kept room, with a morning breakfast buffet and a small lounge where sports fans gathered in the evening. On my first night, I enjoyed a budget prime-rib special for dinner at the Midway Tavern, a local favorite.
On my second night, I found my way to Walker’s Farm Kitchen, which ranks among the finest restaurants in eastern Oregon. Chef Cynthia Walker and her host husband, Larry Walker, serve a gourmet menu — I opted for lamb shank as an entree — complemented by an outstanding selection of regional wines.
— Reporter: email@example.com