Oakes man deeds land to ensure future research

Farm Forum

Four miles south of Oakes, N.D., a 20-acre plot features a number of carefully cultivated crops on the west side of the North Dakota Highway 1. Watered with a mini-irrigation system, onions, sunflowers, corn, beans and potatoes thrive in the plots, with the conditions, yields and results carefully scrutinized.

The area has been called the Oakes Irrigation Research Site. In 1970, the Garrison Diversion Conservancy District and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation decided this spot would be a great area to showcase the benefits of irrigation to farmers, according to community members. On Aug. 20, the public was invited to learn about the research and witness the name change of the location.

With a new sign in place, the original plot and 20 more acres were dedicated as the “Robert Titus Research Farm” in honor of the long-time farmer and innovator who lived just west of the location.

“They asked my mother, Josephine Titus, if they could rent the land; I suppose I was the one who made the decision,” Bob Titus, now 87, explained. “They asked me if they could rent the land for 5 years. That’s been a long five years.” To ensure the research will continue, Bob and Elsie Titus have deeded this land and another 20 acres to the NDSU Development Foundation in their life estate.

Blaine Schatz, director and research agronomist at the North Dakota State University’s Carrington Research Extension Center, oversees the Oakes site and is excited about the expansion.

Schatz thanked the Titus family for their generosity and recognizing the significance of this research for the future.

“The research station has generated a lot of information in the last 46 years, not only for the region and state irrigators, but a lot has been extrapolated to dryland operation and utilized by dryland producers,” Schatz said. “Every year, it’s a struggle to complete all of the research because of the limited footprint. Working with the Garrison Board, the Oakes community, and other ag groups, the research capacity will double. Starting in September, a new linear irrigation system will be put in place.”

Schatz said, “The Robert Titus Research Farm will have greater diversity next year because of expansion of subject matter, and we’ll be able to share with the public results from the research. With twice the acreage, we’ll be able to have more trials and more results.”

Schatz said he is confident the information from the site is being utilized in water management across the area.

“We also look at how to manage fertilizer and disease. All of the information is part of the overall package of information researchers use to make decisions as shown in our annual reports and through the research available online,” he said. “Crops such as those using the LibertyLink trait are planted at Oakes as there are not that many trials available in this type of environment under irrigation. Producers can look at the potential and see the data.”

Schatz said onions are a tremendous crop under irrigation. There are 25 varieties of onions planted at Oakes, and that provides a look at niche marketing.

Even though there isn’t a sugar beet processing plant near Oakes, sugar beets are seen as a potential for biofuel. Under irrigation, the Oakes site provides data to show it has a tremendous potential as an alternative crop.

Since Oakes is close to the South Dakota border, much of the research has regional applications, Schatz said. Northeastern South Dakota and southeastern North Dakota have a lot of similarities, and the Oakes trials can provide valuable information in the controlled setting.

Long history

Walt Albus retired as the research agronomist at the site in 2013. When he and Ray Sletteland started working at the Oakes site, they were only their 20s and needed direction.

“We only had a small shack with our equipment,” Albus said. “Bob (Titus) let us use his shop, tools and junk pile plus would work with us to figure out what we needed to do.”

Albus said the site is used to provide a look at new seed varieties and conventional and non-conventional hybrids. He said a non-biased assessment with regional data is critical for producers. And now, with expensive herbicides, it’s really imperative to find out in trials such as Oakes, what works and what doesn’t.

Sletteland said in the early years, they tried to raise corn, potatoes, soybean, wheat, small grains, alfalfa, forage trials, pinto beans, navy beans. In the 1970s, there was a lot of hand weeding before chemicals like Roundup were available. “And pocket gophers would riddle the plots,” he said with a laugh.

“We wanted to find out what would work under irrigation in these sandy soils,” he said. “We soon found that small grains were not feasible. Crops like onions, potatoes and sugar beets work well.”

“We wouldn’t have made it without Bob. He’s one of the big reasons it’s here,” Sletteland said. “He was a good mentor, a good teacher and heck of a good friend, He should have been an ag mechanics instructor. He would have made one cracker jack of a teacher. He leaves us quite a legacy.”

Titus has been a constant visitor to the site, checking out what crops are growing and seeing if the crew needs any help. The sugar beets grown for energy especially intrigue him.

“I like alcohol,” he said. “I really think there is lot of potential in using biofuels.”

Norm Haak of Oakes is on the Garrison Diversion Conservancy District board of directors and lives close by.

“I moved here in 1972 because there was supposed to be irrigation,” Haak said. “I ran a dairy farm and needed good alfalfa. We put up a pivot system in 1975, and it made a big difference. We got three cuttings which was great.”

Haak remembers that Titus was an innovator and one of the first to use a toll-line to irrigate in that area. He noted, “That was irrigation in its infancy.”

Dennis Werre of Fullerton thought it was very appropriate to name the research facility after Titus.

“Bob was always interested in new things and is an innovator,” Werre said. “It takes courage to be an innovator in a small town. He was progressive and liked to check things out. We can see that if you don’t have irrigation in this sandy soil, you can have a crop failure.”

Plot tours

Those attending the research tour rode on trailers through the fields with speakers describing the research.

Tom Scherer, NDSU Extension Service irrigation specialist, shared information about precision agriculture and how variable rate irrigation is going to be part of the future. New developments in mechanized water management have changed the landscape and offer new opportunities.

Another research project focused on managing white mold (sclerotinia) in soybeans and control of this disease in dry beans.

Kelly Cooper, an Oakes agronomist and manager of Conservation Cropping Systems Project at Forman, N.D., showed samples of the potato varieties grown at the site and the impact of herbicide drift in potato production. He said that the knobby potatoes are best liked by the fast food industry. He also talked about the research they have done related to residue removal in corn fields.

Current staff

Leonard Besemann is the research specialist at the farm, and Heidi Eslinger is the research technician. The team works together to monitor conditions at the site. They plant and care for the crops, and at the end of the year, they harvest crops and gather data.

The Garrison Diversion Conservancy District provides most of the financial resources. North Dakota State University faculty and staff participate in conducting experiments at the site.

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