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Agriculture Requires Fertilizer Inputs, and That’s Good

Posted by Andrew McGuire | October 16, 2014
Harvest is an export of nutrients.  Photo: S. Bauer, USDA

Harvest is an export of nutrients.
Photo: S. Bauer, USDA

On a brown, August-dry field in Eastern Washington, a farmer in a combine cuts a 24-foot swath across a field of wheat. The harvested grain then begins a journey, first to the storage bin, then to the local elevator, on rail to a flour mill, by truck to a bakery, by oven to bread, and by car to a home where it is eaten. This is good; our foremost mandate to agriculture is to produce food. However, with this successful export of food from farm fields to nearby and distant cities comes a problem: the nutrients in the bread, the nutrients that we need from food, and that plants need to grow, are now far from the field they came from. How do we replace them?

High yields, which we want, increase the problem.  A typical irrigated winter wheat field will yield 140 bushels per acre; about 5,600 loaves of bread. For a center pivot circle of 100 acres, the nutrients in those loaves amount to 182 pounds of N, 70 of P2O5 and 49 of K2O and smaller amounts of other essential nutrients that do not have to be replaced every year. All this ends up somewhere else (in people’s bodies or in sewage treatment plants); it will not be returned to the field1. Read more »

Can We Save Nature by Improving Agriculture?

Posted by Andrew McGuire | September 16, 2014
An example of land sharing in Tanzania.  Photo: Rod Waddlington

An example of land sharing in Tanzania. Photo: Rod Waddlington

There is an ongoing debate about how to produce food for a growing population without losing more of our wild lands. Two options are being promoted; “land sparing” where production on current agricultural lands is intensified to produce more food thereby sparing the conversion of wild lands, and “land sharing” where agriculture and wild lands are integrated and small producing parcels are intermixed with wild lands. The former strategy is championed in a paper by Phalan et al. (2011) where the authors report that more bird and tree species were negatively affected by agriculture than benefitted from it. A contrary view from Tscharntke et al. (2012) argues that the land sparing view ignores the complexity of the real world, and that the land sharing strategy would produce more ecosystem services. From these two views, a range of options expand, all of which are being researched and debated.  Read more »

Have we drastically underestimated the productive capacity of plants?

Posted by Chad Kruger | August 28, 2014

A new paper published in Environmental Science & Technology (DeLucia et al., 2014) suggests that scientists have drastically underestimated the earth’s theoretical potential to produce biomass – by as much as 2 orders of magnitude! That’s going to take a minute to wrap my mind around.

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Filed under Climate Change, Energy, Sustainability
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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 »

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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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 »

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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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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Concentrate Organic Matter at Surface to Improve Soils

Posted by Andrew McGuire | April 30, 2014
No-till corn with surface residues (photo: McGuire)

No-till corn with surface residues (photo: McGuire)

Organic matter is the key to soil quality, but building soil organic matter levels can be slow and expensive. There is an alternative. Research shows (Franzluebbers, 2002) many soil functions improve when organic matter is concentrated the top 2-3″ of the soil, and that, for many soils and environments, this may be the most effective way to improve soil quality. Read more »

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