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Questioning the Value of Soil Quality for the Irrigated Arid West

Posted by Andrew McGuire | August 21, 2014

Grant County potato yield Sign“The Nation’s Leading Potato Producing County” states a sign on I-90 at the Grant County border1. In 2010, Washington potato yields averaged 33 tons per acre, compared to Nebraska at 20.7, Wisconsin at 19.8, and Maine at 14.5 tons per acre (Idaho’s main potato producing counties averages 27.2 tons per acre). And it is not just potatoes; the Columbia Basin produces high yields of corn, dry beans, onions, and many other crops. However, the productive soils in the Columbia Basin often have soil organic matter levels less than 1%, much less than the level considered as adequate for proper functioning, and certainly not high enough to be considered high quality soils. How can such “low quality” soils produce high crop yields, yields higher than other regions with higher soil quality? This paradox highlights a problem with the concept of soil quality; that it does not take into account the soil management practices that farmers employ to overcome problems in so-called “low quality soils” and therefore does not reflect real production capacity of soils, especially in the West. Read more »

The Reactive Nitrogen “Wicked Problem”– critical nutrient, disastrous pollutant

Posted by Craig Frear | August 11, 2014

Nobel Peace Prize recipient and Director of the Purdue University Climate Change Research Center, Dr. Otto Doering, recently gave a keynote speech where he highlighted his definition of Wicked Problems facing the globe and the US.

In brief, he used US struggles regarding affordable health care and the debate regarding the Affordable Health Care Act as a prime example of a Wicked Problem. Regardless where one might stand politically on such an issue, it is clear that the issues of affordable health care and potential policy solutions are of great importance to many, with its tentacles reaching into vast and diverse sectors of our society. No clear consensus on how to solve the problem appears to be present, due to the complexities and interrelationships involved. In particular, solutions can be shown to result in a cascade of unknown consequences, either positive or negative, with individual stakeholders holding a diversity of economic, personal and social viewpoints.  Read more »

New Meta-Analysis Identifies Three Significant Benefits Associated With Organically Grown Plant-Based Foods

Posted by Chuck Benbrook | July 11, 2014

There have been four progressively rigorous meta-analyses published since 2009 focusing on differences in the nutritional quality and safety of organic versus conventional food. The latest comes out July 15, 2014 in the British Journal of Nutrition (BJN). I was the sole American scientist on the mostly European research team that produced the BJN paper:

bjn_logoHigher antioxidant and lower cadmium concentrations and lower incidence of pesticide residues in organically grown crops: a systematic literature review and meta-analyses. Baranski, M., D. Srednicka-Tober, N. Volakakis, C. Seal, R. Sanderson, G. B. Stewart, C. Benbrook, B. Biavati, E. Markellou, C. Giotis, J. Gromadzka-Ostrowska, E. Rembiałkowska, K. Skwarło-Son, R. Tahvonen, D. Janovska, U. Niggli, P. Nicot and C. Leifert.

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Filed under Nutrition, Organic Farming, Toxics
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Closing the Nutrient Loop

Posted by Georgine Yorgey | July 2, 2014

There are a number of sustainability issues getting a fair amount of attention these days: climate change, regional and local food systems, and soil health, to name a few. While this is obviously good, there are also issues that may be getting somewhat less attention than they deserve. And closing the nutrient loop is one of these. Read more »

Filed under Energy, Sustainable Practices and Technology
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Will Second-Generation Herbicide-Tolerant Crops Dominate the Weed Management Toolbox?

Posted by Chuck Benbrook | June 30, 2014

Problems triggered by the spread of glyphosate-resistant weeds in corn, soybean, and cotton country continue to worsen. An industry source recently projected that 70 million acres are now infested with one or more glyphosate-resistant weed. The presence of glyphosate-resistant weeds forces farmers to add additional herbicides to their control programs, and apply herbicides more often and/or at higher rates. Costs have risen $25 to over $75 per acre. Read more »

Filed under Sustainability, Toxics
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Cold + Dry = Winterkill : 2013-14 Winter in Review

Posted by Andrew McGuire | June 18, 2014

Remember last winter? As June warms and temperatures in the 90s are in the forecast, it may be hard to recall, but here in the Columbia Basin, it was dry with a few notable cold spells. That combination of cold and dry can be hard on plants, agricultural and ornamental.

Plants, both annuals and perennials, from wheat to lavender, alfalfa to ziziphus, vary in their ability to survive winter conditions. However, there are three factors that combined to make last winter a “hard winter.” Read more »

Making Farming “Climate Friendly”: What is the impact of nitrous oxide in our region?

Posted by Georgine Yorgey | June 17, 2014

If you are interested in ensuring that farming is climate friendly you are likely to start thinking about nitrous oxide (N2O). Nitrous oxide is a powerful greenhouse gas (298 times as powerful as carbon dioxide, over a 100-year time frame). And nitrous oxide from agricultural soils is the single biggest contributor to agriculture’s direct greenhouse gas emissions, as estimated through inventories of greenhouse gas emissions. In Washington State, it was estimated that nitrous oxide from soils accounted for 46% of direct greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture in 2008.1 However, these estimates rely on “default” assumptions about nitrous oxide emissions that were developed from global data – and a review of existing experimental data in our region suggests these defaults may not be appropriate in our region. Read more »

Pesticide Residues in Organic Food — Delivering on a Promise

Posted by Chuck Benbrook | June 3, 2014

Avoiding pesticide exposure and risks remains the #1 reason most people choose organic food. This is not likely to change until there is convincing data that show only modest differences between the pesticide dietary risks associated with residues in and on organic food, compared to conventionally grown food. Read more »

Filed under Organic Farming, Toxics
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The Sustainability of the Columbia Basin’s Irrigation System

Posted by Andrew McGuire | June 2, 2014

Although now teenagers, while in Ephrata’s elementary school my three daughters learned about hydropower generation, electricity and the dams owned and operated by the Grant County Public Utility District. This is good. I believe that people should know where the basics of life come from, so I would tell them at the dinner table that I was glad they were getting a good dam education. Eyes rolled. But earlier this year, when a crack appeared in Wanapum dam necessitating a 26′ drop in water level behind the dam, my girls knew what was at stake; the future of a unique and productive irrigation system.

Wanapum Dam at normal operation (photo: Dept of Ecology)

Wanapum Dam at normal operation (photo: Dept of Ecology)

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Filed under Sustainability
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Washington Agriculture by the Numbers

Posted by David Granatstein | May 28, 2014
Rainier cherries grown in WA (photo: Thomas Hawk)

Rainier cherries grown in WA (photo: Thomas Hawk)

The results of the 2012 Census of Agriculture were recently released by USDA.  Every 5 years, the National Agricultural Statistics Service fields a nationwide census to all identifiable farms in the country.  The census reports contain a wealth of information and new questions are added as agriculture changes, such as questions on direct marketing, organic production, use of rotational or management-intensive grazing, and harvest of biomass crops for energy. Read more »

Filed under Food Systems, Organic Farming, Sustainability
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