VANCOUVER, Wash. – Washington State University researcher Carol Miles has spent many months over the past five years traveling from Vancouver to Africa, planting, harvesting and cataloging beans.
Her purpose is to help American farmers earn a profit and to help African farmers feed the hungry.
Quietly and steadily, the internationally known vegetable horticulturist has joined with her assistant Liz Nelson and a changing crew of graduate students to test a new exotic mix of dried beans. In Western Washington and Oregon, the new varieties of beans may produce major profits for small, specialized niche farms.
But the work that had been conducted at WSU’s Research and Extension Unit here has shifted to a facility in Mount Vernon. The move occurred amid questions about the future of the Vancouver site.
For African farmers, Miles and her students have been working to increase seed production of red kidney beans and get them into the hands of farmers where transportation systems are poor.
“In Washington, we’ve been using colored and patterned beans,” Miles said before leaving to work in Malawi. “These are beans that are not on the shelf anywhere, beautiful old beans, heirloom, in very pretty colors and patterns, that farmers have been selling from Olympia to Western Oregon, often at several dollars a pound.”
They’ve been a success, for example, on Laura Masterson’s 47th Avenue Farm in Portland, Ore., as well as at Ayers Creek Farm in Gaston, Ore. Masterson said she’s been growing and selling Jacob’s Cattle beans and cannellini beans that Miles developed and has just started growing other varieties of dry beans from Miles’ stock.
“The beans are great. They are definitely profitable for us, a nice little niche option,” said Masterson, who grows a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. “Carol is a tremendous resource. She saved us years of work. I can’t tell you how tragic it is that she is not going to be here anymore.”
Miles’ work isn’t all beans. She also has been studying a new cornstarch-based, biodegradable mulch to replace the common black plastic that now lingers for years in landfills.
She’s been growing more than 100 varieties of watermelon. She works with graduate student Jamie Cummings on spinach variety trials. She also has worked to develop hearty Pacific Northwest butternut squash with Molly Jahn, now dean of the University of Wisconsin College of Agricultural and Life Sciences.
It’s unclear whether any of this research will continue in Vancouver.
Changes have already come to the 79-acre research station, which from the late 1800s through 1949 was “the county poor farm” for homeless, disabled or elderly men and women. WSU and Clark County changed the use of the land in 1949 to an agricultural experiment station.
Now, in the spirit of economizing on the state’s agriculture research functions, much of the work is being transferred to other sites.
Miles and entomologist Lynell Tanigoshi, the Vancouver station’s two major researchers, have moved their offices to WSU’s Northwestern Research and Extension Center at Mount Vernon. Researcher Tom Walters, also based at Mount Vernon, continues some blueberry and raspberry experiments here.
It’s unclear how the old farm will be used in the future, officials say.
WSU and Clark County have been negotiating for several years on the fate of the land. Ideas range from continued farm research to setting up ball fields with walking trails and open space.
“The possibilities are for a regional agriculture demonstration farm, or for care of small-scale crops or production,” said Blair Wolfley, southwest district director of WSU Extension in 11 Western Washington counties. “I don’t know of anyone who is concentrating on urban fringe production, and that might be a possibility. You don’t have to have an office here to continue to do research here.”
Nelson, who lives in Battle Ground, hopes the research will continue here. She notes that weather and soil conditions at Mount Vernon are different from the conditions in Clark County. “What about the farmers here?” she asked.
Miles said she just plans to carry on her work wherever it’s allowed and let Wolfley talk about the future of the Vancouver site.
Miles has developed an international reputation. She joined Washington State University in 1994 as an area extension agent specializing in vegetable production systems. She also has studied alternative high-value crops including edamame (vegetable soybeans), baby corn, pea shoots, wasabi and bamboo.
Her interest in sustainable agricultural systems seems to have grown naturally out of the pattern of her life.
Born in Rangoon, Burma, she attended grade school in Turkey, Nigeria and Panama. She graduated from high school in Afghanistan. She served in the Peace Corps, teaching vegetable production in Cameroon. There she also worked on a bean and cowpea project studying crop balancing and pest issues.
She also worked on preventing blindness in Malawi with the Helen Keller Foundation and Save the Children. She saw a lot of subsistence agriculture in all these places and cultures, and her goal became working with farmers to create sustainable production systems that provide a source of well-being to both the family and the community.
She has also worked on organic pest control, disease suppression and human pathogens. She has worked in Malawi and Tanzania on sustainable seed systems. She said she intends to carry on her work, wherever she can find space and interest.