Tying People Back to Their Food

photo: Jason Kaplan
The Port of Morrow Sage Center houses 23,000 square feet of interactive exhibits.

Port of Morrow’s SAGE Center is a modern, interactive way to learn about the realities of food production.

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Unless you’re looking for it, you wouldn’t find it. If it’s dark, you might notice a few lights twinkling near the coastline. Yet tucked along the river of I-84 is one of the most important places in Oregon, maybe even the country: it’s the Port of Morrow, the place that feeds the world.

The Port of Morrow is the second largest port in Oregon, behind the Port of Portland. It has an economic output of $2.7 billion and employs nearly 8,500 people, more than doubling the population of Boardman, where the port is located. Beyond shipping and freighting, its natural resources and ample space make it an ideal home for many companies, namely in food production—corn, onion, potato, peppermint, even Tillamook Cheese are all grown and packaged here (amongst many others).

The Port is one of the main economic drivers in Oregon and ships to nearly every country in the world.

And people hardly know it exists.
POM shippingPort of Morrow barge terminal.

To build awareness, the Port of Morrow developed the SAGE Center (Sustainable Agriculture and Energy), a 23,000 square foot museum. Unlike the Port, it’s easily visible from the highway. Inside, visitors enjoy family-friendly, interactive exhibits that tell the story of the Port, the innovative technologies and methods used to produce food sustainably, as well as the Port’s various industries and their global impacts.

“We took on the development of the SAGE Center to educate people about what happens here at the Port,” says Gary Neal, the Port of Morrow’s General Manager for over 30 years. “We feed the world out of this place; it’s important for people to know our story, and where their food comes

Prior to the Port, Morrow County was barren. With seven inches of annual rainfall, it consisted mostly of wheat farmers. In 1959, the Federal Government started a checking account with $500 to build the John Day Dam. Irrigated agriculture was soon implemented, creating a more cost-effective way to transport water from the pool and wheat to the market.

sage center
With a growing infrastructure, business soon skyrocketed. Companies were drawn by access to the Port’s resources: Bonneville Power Grid, a natural gas pipeline, major transportation lines, fertile soil, and unique climate conditions. What began as a wheat farm has expanded to include processing plants, energy projects, and even data centers (this story is illustrated in the museum’s exhibit, “$500 and a Dream”).

The Port of Morrow employs within a 50-mile radius, and boasts the 3rd highest annual wage in Morrow County. Throughout 2017-18, they had an average of 150-200 job openings, ranging from shift supervisors to maintenance workers to specialized technicians.

POM warehousePort of Morrow cold storage warehouse.

Beyond learning the story and activities of the Port, visitors also get an inside look at how  many common food items are produced. A family favorite is the Kinetic Sculpture, which illustrates the process of turning a potato into a curly french fry. Children come away with a deeper understanding of how one of their favorite foods—in this case, the french fry—is produced and what goes into its production.

“Most kids don’t understand that potatoes aren’t grown in grocery stores,” says Heather Cannell, who manages the SAGE Center. “People are surprised about the process, but also how prudently we use the land.”
sage center french friesA kinetic sculpture depicting the evolution of potato to french fry at the Sage Center.

Herein lies the deeper purpose of the SAGE Center: to dispel the public’s misconceptions of farming and growing practices.

This disconnect has been widening for generations, mostly due to the decrease in individual farms. The gap was amplified after 9/11: the threat of an attack on America’s food supply was a major concern for the government. To ensure protection, food processors had to significantly revamp their safety procedures, which meant discontinuing tours and limiting public access. This planted a seed of mistrust regarding the ethics and practices of food production.

The SAGE Center seeks to re-establish transparency.

Kalie Davis managed the SAGE Center for over five years (she now runs the Port’s Workforce Training Program). Her favorite part of managing the museum, she says, was seeing the shift in understanding that occurred during the course of a visit. “The perception was so different from the reality,” she says. “Hardly anybody that comes through knows how advanced our technology is, how meticulous the processes are. People are completely blown away.”

In one exhibit, “Agriculture Today”, visitors must plant corn in a straight line with a simulated tractor; first by driving the tractor manually, then with the use of GPS and modern technologies. The difference is vast—one visitor planted 2,676 seeds, while the GPS-led tractor planted 38,000.
sage center tractorTractor simulator shows visitors at the Sage Center how the land is worked.

A more sophisticated example—and more common misconception—centers on water usage. Many assume irrigated agriculture results in large amounts of wasted water. Yet Oregon uses 0.5% of water that flows in the Columbia River; remarkable in contrast to Washington’s 2-3% and Idaho’s 3-4%. “We have the most advanced technology and water usage here than anywhere in the world,” says Neal. A 200-person theater in the SAGE Center showcases their advanced methods of water recycling. Through neutron probes, satellites, and soil analysis, the Port has one of the highest water-efficiency percentages in the world. Neal adds, “Without water, we’re desert; the Columbia River is our lifeblood. If we don’t use it wisely, we don’t exist.”

Beyond water, the SAGE Center showcases sustainable use of the land as well. Three Mile Canyon Farms, one of the region’s largest dairy farms, uses leftover scraps from potato processing as feed for their cows, applies dairy manure to fertilize field, and gives milk to processing plants for cheese production.

“Knowing the production process has a very significant impact on how we do things here,” says Davis. “When people know the underpinnings of agriculture, it may change the way they vote.”

In the past, people have voted for certain policies that were detrimental to farmers. In visiting the SAGE Center, employees are hopeful that, when it comes time to vote on major environmental issues, the public will have a more well-rounded context to draw upon.

The SAGE Center’s mission is fundamentally simple: to tie people back to their food. Visitors, and children especially, come away with a deeper appreciation of what they eat, as well as the people who produce it. The content is appropriate for all ages, from children to seniors.
sage center displayA food display at the Sage Center shows the many products grown in the region.

Next time you and your family are eating french fries, why not take a drive and learn how they came to arrive on your plate?

LEARN MORE: Located just 165 miles east of Portland, the SAGE Center is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. for regular hours; summer hours (Memorial Day through Labor Day) are Sunday through Thursday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Adult admission is $5, or $3 for students and seniors (free for children under 5 and Active Military or Veterans). To visit, use I-84 and take Exit 164 in Boardman. Go north on Main Street, take an immediate right on Front Street and end at 101 Olson Road.

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