WSU scientist grows global reach
Developing effective grafting techniques benefits growers around the world
By STEVE BROWN
MOUNT VERNON, Wash. -- Extension is a place where science and education intersect with people's needs. At Washington State University, Carol Miles calls that intersection home.
The vegetable specialist at Mount Vernon Northwestern Washington Research and Extension Center might be found in the field or in the laboratory, in a classroom or in a Third World village.
"She could go to Cornell and lead a workshop or to the far reaches of the Earth," said Stephen Jones, director of the research center. "That's the beauty of what she does. That's a real skill, and that breadth of knowledge and situation is valuable to an administrator."
Miles recently returned from Nicaragua, where she visited seven villages in two weeks, teaching farmers how to graft vegetables so they can be more self-sufficient.
"Grafting is really an old technology, and when I started looking into it as a way to deal with soilborne diseases, I assumed there would be guidelines available," she said. "But there was conflicting information from different sources."
Miles spent four years working on different grafting techniques and wrote WSA fact sheets on how to graft.
"The success depends on the way the plants are treated," she said. "The healing process is site-specific, how long you need to maintain the right temperature and humidity."
She has been working with watermelon and eggplant, because growers in the Columbia Basin have to deal with verticillium wilt, and with tomatoes, because they are often grown in high tunnels, often without crop rotation to break the disease cycle.
And for growers managing organically, grafting is a sustainable alternative to fumigation.
"We have lots of disease pressure here (at Mount Vernon). It's a good environment to work in," she said.
Developing effective techniques of grafting scions onto resistant rootstock has been valuable not only for commercial growers in the Northwest, but also for small villagers struggling to provide nutrition for their families and grow a cash crop.
This year she and WSU graduate student Jesse Wimer, from Moscow, Idaho, are screening rootstocks, which hasn't been done before, she said. Using germplasm from a USDA repository and commercial sources, they're observing for resistance, then later for compatibility. By next year, she expects to be ready for on-farm trials.
"We're playing with the technique, especially with melons," she said. "We've got an 80 percent (success rate) now, as good as commercial. Our goal is 90 percent or better. And we want to simplify it."
As the techniques become more efficient, she also envisions a grafted vegetable industry in Washington.
Her mission in Nicaragua was to help growers find alternatives to chemicals, which are expensive there. She worked with the Florida Association for Volunteer Action in the Caribbean and the Americas -- FAVACA -- which promotes social and economic development in more than 30 countries in the region.
FAVACA partners with existing non-governmental organizations, in this case a church-based group.
"A group of five U.S. women run a farm and a school for ages 7 through 16, ensuring the people have meds, training and education," Miles said.
She compared the situation with her previous work in Africa, where malnutrition is caused by famine. "In Nicaragua, there's malnutrition because they don't understand the need for vegetables to balance the carbs."
Now that they've grasped the grafting techniques, she said, they can increase their vegetable production by 50 percent. "They're very tech-savvy, even at the village level where they don't have access to formal education. ...
"I get away once a year to do something like this. It's good. I volunteer; they pay my expenses."
Miles was virtually born traveling. Her father was in the diplomatic corps; she was born in Rangoon, Burma (now Myanmar); and she graduated from high school at the American International School in Kabul, Afghanistan, just after the communist party seized control and the Soviet Union sent in military advisers. "That was the last graduating class," she said.
Besides grafted vegetables, Miles also studies cider, plasticulture, wasabi, pea shoots, edamame and leafy greens.
Jones said he has known Miles for 20 years, and her teaching hungry villagers "is good for them, but she learns just as much as she teaches."
"She's successful because she's quite respectful of cultures, and observant. You don't just come in and show you know everything," he said. "She's just tireless, an incredibly working person.
"She doesn't have to seek out these things. They find her. She's in demand for this type of work."
Residence: Anacortes, Wash.
Occupation: Associate professor of vegetable horticulture at WSU Mount Vernon Northwestern Washington Research and Extension Center
Education: Bachelor's degree from Colorado State University; Ph.D. in vegetable crops from Cornell University
Family: Married, two children