Sonia A. Hall

Real-life agricultural innovation: implications for future preparedness

Posted by Sonia A. Hall | December 4, 2017

Extension has traditionally involved getting results from researchers to decision-makers in agriculture. Partly because I work on climate change and agriculture, and partly because of the approach my team and the researchers we work with take, extension is, for us, a two-way street. In this article I want to highlight the “other” side of that street: how innovations that producers test out in real life complement research and supports future preparedness.

Both John Aeschliman (left) and Douglas Poole (right) practice no-till, though they farm with very different precipitation regimes. Photo: Alex Garland.

In preparation for a new project I reviewed case studies and profiles others I work with published as part of the Regional Approaches to Climate Change – Pacific Northwest Agriculture (REACCH-PNA) project, which focused on dryland cereal production in a changing climate. These case studies tell the stories of producers who are implementing practices that break some mold, and that is leading to both interesting results and to benefits that will help them be prepared for future climates. Here I highlight the startling similarities in the stories of two farmers that farm in different precipitation zones. John Aeschliman farms in Colfax, Washington, with a range of precipitation up to 18+ inches annually. Doug Poole farms in Mansfield, Washington, with half that precipitation. Both these farmers are innovative pioneers, and transitioning to no-till is a cornerstone of their innovations. And both no-till and innovation have implications for preparing for future climates. Read more »

Global agricultural regions to keep your eye on in the future

Posted by Sonia A. Hall | November 13, 2017

Over 30% of wheat is grown in temperate drylands globally, which are expected to see a 41% increase in suitability for rainfed agriculture. Photo credit: Flickr user Sparky, under CC BY-NC 2.0.

One challenge I struggle with when sharing research focused at global scales is how to tease out answers to questions that are meaningful in the region and at the scale I work in. My approach is to focus on the big picture the results sketch out, and think about what it all means (even when the specifics are not exactly right, which they rarely are). Hopefully I’ll be successful in this article about a paper I co-authored, on agriculture in temperate drylands (I define these below) at a global scale. Led by Dr. John Bradford at the U.S. Geological Survey, we looked at temperate drylands across the world, and explored how rainfed (non-irrigated) agricultural areas could shift as the climate changes. Read on, and see if I convince you that wheat growers in the Pacific Northwest should care about these results.   Read more »

Filed under Climate Change, Global Environment
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Drought and small revenues – do they always go hand in hand?

Posted by Sonia A. Hall | June 5, 2017

The conditions the Northwest experienced in 2015 have received a lot of attention, because we saw drought even though precipitation was close to normal. So the drought was due to higher temperatures, which meant snow didn’t accumulate anywhere near as much as it does on average. With less water available for irrigation in summer (see our earlier articles on the 2015 drought here and here), we’d expected irrigated crops to suffer, and we’d also expect growers’ bottom line to suffer.

Drought (and other stresses) can have a significant impact on crop production—see this comparison of the size of an ear of corn in Missouri during the 2012 drought to its “normal” size (space between hands). The expectation is that decreases in production will lead to drops in revenue, but is that always the case? Photo: Malory Ensor/KOMU News under CC BY 2.0

But when the National Agricultural Statistics Service’s Annual Statistical Bulletin for Washington State came out in October 2016, it was followed by an article in Capital Press discussing the apparent paradox that agricultural production values hit record highs in 2015, even though the region was under that newsworthy “snow drought.” Though I did not personally fact-check the Capital Press article, it’s an intriguing paradox. A presentation I heard at the recent (January 2017) Climate Impacts to Water Conference provided some insights. Ballav Aryal, a graduate student in the School of Economic Sciences at Washington State University, presented research that highlighted two factors that might explain this apparent paradox. Read more »

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Let the worms do the work – Critters help dairies manage manure

Posted by Sonia A. Hall | April 18, 2017

Got milk? Dairies are in the milk business, but must also manage manure produced along the way, and the potentially useful nutrients it holds. Photo: NRCS in Oregon under CC BY-ND 2.0.

Managing manure is a big part of what goes on at the “back end” of a dairy. Doing it well is important to avoid impacts on surrounding neighbors due to odors, impacts on air and water quality, or the release of unnecessary amounts of greenhouse gases such as methane or nitrous oxides (which, by the way, are respectively 28 and 265 times more powerful as global warming “blankets” than carbon dioxide). There are multiple technologies being developed, tested, and used to improve manure management in dairies. These include anaerobic digestion, which produces bioenergy and helps reduce odors (we provided an overview about a year ago in this article). Nutrient recovery technologies are another aspect being studied. These are an array of different technologies that allow us to collect the potentially useful nitrogen and phosphorus found in manure, so it can be used productively rather than contributing to climate change or other issues. Read more »

Parched and drenched – we can expect both in the Northwest

Posted by Sonia A. Hall | March 15, 2017

The snow-covered landscape, the Columbia River, and the pine forests covered with signs of the recent ice storm provided the backdrop for the Climate Impacts to Water Conference, hosted by Washington State University Extension. University of Idaho climate scientist John Abatzoglou gave a plenary talk, titled Parched and Drenched: Future Climate and Water Resources in the Pacific Northwest (check out the recording here).

What I really liked about Abatzoglou’s presentation was that he focused on one key number, and then got into the weeds of what it means and why it’s important to us. That key number in this case was the fact that the Northwest has seen an increase in average temperatures of 1°C (that’s almost 2°F, if you prefer Fahrenheit), which has mostly occurred in the last 50 years. Is this an important change, and should we care? Yes, because this past temperature increase has already led to more rain and less snow, a reduced winter snowpack, and spring runoff coming earlier in the year, leaving us drier in the summer. Read more »

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Hot, hotter, hottest (so far) – Should I care?

Posted by Sonia A. Hall | February 9, 2017

I must confess that sometimes I like geeking out on data—raw climate data, for example. But most of the time I don’t have enough background knowledge about the complex and detailed data I’m looking at to interpret what it shows me about the big picture. So I really appreciate it when the experts take the time to present and discuss their data in a way that helps me understand the underlying patterns. If you are like me in that way, you might enjoy a recent (January 2017) Beyond the Data blog article by NOAA climate scientist Jessica Blunden, discussing how unusual the 2014-2016 global record-temperature “three-peat” is, relative to the temperature record over the last 100+ years.

Granted, you can argue that Blunden chose this “three-peat” to make a particular point. Yes, choosing a particular way to slice the data can be arbitrary, unless you have the statistical expertise to pull out from the data themselves the most relevant slicing (which I don’t). Nonetheless, Blunden’s article provides some interesting food for thought about long-term trends, and a variety of ways to look at the data to see if we should care about a particular pattern, in this case the 2014-2016 “three-peat.” Read more »

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Keep an eye on those pests! Vigilance and adaptability to climate change

Posted by Sonia A. Hall | September 12, 2016

I’m a “lumper” rather than a “splitter.” Give me lots of details on different crops, yields, pests, or weeds, and I’ll try to pull out some overarching idea to remember (I’m likely to forget the details). Luckily there are people who thrive on the details, as was made clear to me in a webinar given by Dr. Sanford Eigenbrode earlier this year, discussing climate change and insects in wheat systems.

Wheat infected with Barley Yellow Dwarf Virus (BYDV). Photo: Dr. Juliet Marshall, University of Idaho.

Wheat infected with Barley Yellow Dwarf Virus (BYDV). Photo: Dr. Juliet Marshall, University of Idaho.

Because I am a “lumper”, I’ll start with the overarching point I took away from the webinar: we (that is, entomologists like Dr. Eigenbrode, not me personally) know enough about the insect pests affecting wheat systems in the Pacific Northwest to know that different insects, the viruses they spread, and the parasitoids and predators that control them will respond differently to a changing climate. So while crop models suggest that wheat yields in our high latitudes will fare reasonably well as carbon dioxide concentrations increase and the climate warms, there is still a huge question mark related to whether insects and other pests will allow such yields to happen. Vigilance, and knowing what insects to pay particular attention to, can therefore make a big difference to wheat growers’ collective ability to respond and adapt to changes. Read more »

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How useful are models anyway? An example, now open for public comment

Posted by Sonia A. Hall | July 14, 2016
Cover of the draft 2016 Long-Term Supply and Demand Forecast Legislative Report, currently available for public comment.  Click image for link.

Cover of the draft 2016 Long-Term Supply and Demand Forecast Legislative Report, currently available for public comment. Click image for link.

Water, water everywhere… but will it continue to be there in the future? Will it be available when we need it? Or do we need to invest in projects or policies now, because the water in the future will not be the same as in the past? These are the issues that the collaborative research team working on the 2016 Columbia River Long-Term Supply and Demand Forecast are using models to address, at the direction of the Office of the Columbia River (OCR, part of the Washington Department of Ecology) and the Washington State Legislature.

Preliminary model results were presented at three public workshops in Richland, Wenatchee and Spokane in late June, and the draft report is available for public comment on OCR’s website until July 20, 2016. Here’s the summary of changes in water supply projected by this research:

  • Average annual supply of water for all uses across the Columbia River Basin down to Bonneville Dam is expected to increase around 12% by 2035.
  • That water would be available earlier in the spring than it has been in the past: water supply between November and May is projected to increase by almost 30%, while water supply between June and October is projected to decrease almost 11%.

Read more »

Filed under Climate Change, Sustainability
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Perspectives on Agriculture in a Changing Climate – It’s complicated!

Posted by Sonia A. Hall | May 10, 2016
Pacific Northwest agricultural industries where urgency meets win-win solutions. Credits: Shellfish – Flickr user NH567 under CC BY-NC 2.0; Irrigation – Henry Alva under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0; Vineyard – Flickr user under CC BY 2.0.

Pacific Northwest agricultural industries where urgency meets win-win solutions. Credits: Shellfish – Flickr user NH567 under CC BY-NC 2.0; Irrigation – Henry Alva under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0; Vineyard – Flickr user under CC BY 2.0.

“Agriculture” in the Pacific Northwest encompasses a lot—dryland and irrigated systems, beef and dairy production, grains and other field crops, vegetables, fruit trees, pastures, other perennial crops, commodity and specialty markets, from local to global—so there’s no getting away from the fact that talking about climate change and agriculture gets complicated, really fast. This point came across to me very strongly at the Agriculture in a Changing Climate workshop in Kennewick in March, when invited industry representatives shared their perspectives on climate change and agriculture during a panel discussion. Read more »

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Early 2015 drought loss numbers are coming in – Where is my crystal ball?

Posted by Sonia A. Hall | February 25, 2016

Originally published on Agriculture Climate Network February 22, 2016

Drought conditions across the western U.S. in August 2015. Source: U.S. Drought Monitor Map Archive

Drought conditions across the western U.S. in August 2015. Source: U.S. Drought Monitor Map Archive

There is little doubt that last year’s high temperatures and water scarcity—because of the warm, low-snowpack winter—had a significant economic impact on Pacific Northwest agriculture. A Washington Department of Agriculture (WSDA) preliminary report places losses at approximately $325 million statewide, based on an initial estimate. These numbers will change as better data roll in. Meanwhile, a study by University of California–Davis researcher Richard Howitt and colleagues places that state’s crop revenue losses due to drought at $900 million. While I have not found similar reports for Oregon and Idaho, these two states also felt the drought, particularly in Oregon.In an earlier post I described how knowing that a particular year’s weather is representative of future climate projections can give us a good sense of what may be ahead. To the extent that this is true, then a better understanding of the impacts last year’s conditions had on agriculture can give us a sense of what we can expect as the climate warms. And the diversity of growers’ responses and how effective they were can give us ideas about what strategies to try as the climate changes. Read more »

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