In a city serious about food, OSU innovation center is at home
By Eric Mortenson
PORTLAND — An agricultural experiment station might seem an unlikely resident of this city’s upscale Pearl District, which has gone from gritty warehouses and railyards to gain a self-described “worldwide reputation for urban renaissance.”
But Oregon State University’s Food Innovation Center has been perched along Naito Parkway since 2000. And in hindsight, the decision to open the FIC in what became arguably the foodie capital of the U.S. seems an inspired choice.
“Lucky, maybe,” laughs Thayne Dutson, who was dean of OSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences at the time.
Nonetheless, the FIC was OSU’s first foothold in Portland, where OSU and the University of Oregon increasingly scrap for attention, money and students. The FIC may have been the first agricultural experiment station — still its technical designation — to open in an urban area. It marked a major and continuing collaboration with the Oregon Department of Agriculture, which leases space in the FIC for its marketing, trade and laboratory services.
Staff at the FIC help Northwest food entrepreneurs with product development, manufacturing, safety, packaging, labeling, shelf-life and more. Its sensory science specialist can measure consumer acceptance of new products, and another researcher is working on the use of radio frequency identification technology (RFID) to track products as they move from processor to plate.
Clients range from hundreds of small entrepreneurs learning how to take their idea to market, to giant, unnamed food corporations that pay to test products with sophisticated Portland consumers.
The appointment of a new center director has people mulling the FIC’s role as producers and processors respond to consumers’ demand for better, safer and healthier food.
David Stone, an OSU toxicology professor and director and principal investigator of the National Pesticide Information Network on campus, takes over from retiring Director Michael Morrisey April 1.
Dan Arp, dean of OSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences, said Morrisey provided the FIC stability, direction and momentum during his nine years as director. Morrisey built a “terrific” staff, Arp said, and allowed them to develop to their full potential.
The FIC can raise its visibility as an integral part of the Portland scene, Arp said.
“Is it as well known as it should be? No, certainly not,” he said.
There’s no question the city is a “foodie hub,” Arp said, and the center can “accentuate that Portland vibe we all know and love.”
Stone said maintaining the center’s existing programs is important, but the FIC’s role will broaden as well. The center will hire a food safety professor this summer to educate people as the federal Food Safety Modernization Act unfolds.
Stone also wants to engage the “underserved” people who don’t have access to healthy food, and to provide more internships and other opportunities for students.
Staff members appear to share Arp’s and Stone’s vision.
“We now have a brand,” said Sarah Masoni, the FIC’s product development manager. “What we need to do next is figure out how to take it to next level.”
Research chef Jason Ball, who joined the staff 14 months ago, said the FIC is much like OSU’s other ag experiment stations in that it responds to needs of the micro-climate.
“And so to have us in the urban center of Portland makes sense from a food entrepreneur standpoint, and also from a sensory standpoint,” Ball said.
“One of the first things you notice is that people in Portland care so much about their food: Where it comes from, how it’s produced and what the ingredients are,” he said.
“The city is full of people who are really invested in food.”
It’s also full of people who make a living with food. An August 2015 study by Portland State University estimated the five-county Portland-area “food economy” employs 100,000 people. The study, “Portland’s Food Economy: Trends and Contributions,” counted jobs in food production, processing, distribution and services.
The authors said Portland alone had 40,000 food economy jobs, from grocery store and processing plant employees to restaurant workers. Food economy jobs accounted for slightly more than 10 percent of all employment in the city and grew by 6.9 percent from 2010 to 2012 alone, according to the study. The growth rate nearly doubled that of non-food jobs.
Establishing the FIC in Portland came before anyone knew that would happen.
Building a ‘hotbed’
Dutson, who retired from OSU in 2008, said the idea came first from Roy Arnold, then the ag school dean.
Arnold hosted a meeting at his house with Dutson, who was experiment station director and the college’s associate director of research, and with Bob Buchanan, then ODA director, and his top assistant, Bruce Andrews.
Arnold believed OSU and the state agency should ramp up their connections. The four men shared a collaborative view of what could be accomplished by establishing a “hotbed of different disciplines.”
It made sense to combine food science and market development activities in the state’s largest city, Dutson said. “It all really fits together.”
Dutson and Andrews eventually succeeded their bosses at their respective institutions, and carried the vision into office with them. They rounded up political support, particularly from then-Sen. Mark Hatfield, and financial help from the USDA and other sources.
The center wobbled a bit in early years, but OSU and the ag department would not let it “die on the vine,” Dutson said. Hiring Morrisey as station director in 2007 — he’d been manager of OSU’s seafood lab in Astoria — was a “very good move,” Dutson said.
Arp, the current OSU dean, has described food as “the handshake between urban and rural.”
“Our name is the College of Agricultural Sciences, but our mission really is food, ag science and natural resources,” Arp said.
“That allows us to take a soil-to-shelf approach to everything we do. That requires places like the FIC to be the point of the spear in doing that.”