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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 »

From micro- to macro- : what are we ignoring in agriculture?

Posted by David Granatstein | April 28, 2014

Every now and then a news story or article really makes me stop and think.  I just listened to an interview on NPR on Monday, April 14, with Dr. Martin Blaser, infectious disease specialist and author of the new book “Missing Microbes.” He is the Director of the NYU Human Microbiome Program.  The microbiome refers to the diverse array of micro-organisms that live in or on our bodies. It turns out that some 70-90% of the cells in and on our body are not our own human cells – they are cells of various bacteria, fungi, viruses, and other critters we cannot see with our eyes or normally detect with any of our senses. Read more »

Greening Up with Cover Crops for Yield and Sustainability

Posted by David Granatstein | February 24, 2014

I had the good fortune to attend the National Conference on Cover Crops and Soil Health in Omaha, Nebraska recently.  Soil health is in the limelight these days, with a new soil health initiative at the USDA-NRCS, a new Soil Health Partnership from the National Corn Growers Association, another soil health initiative from the Noble Foundation, and several recent meetings on soil health here in the Northwest including a session at the Washington State Horticulture meeting last December and a day-long soil quality workshop in Mt. Vernon.  Read more »

Do Farm Bills Drive or Deter Change?

Posted by Chuck Benbrook | February 5, 2014

Farm bills over the last forty years have shaped today’s agriculture systems and technology.  They have done so by setting the “rules of the road” and defining or shaping research and investment priorities.

The new farm bill provides farmers, agribusiness, rural communities, and the food industry a more stable policy framework in which to make investment and planting decisions.  But my sense is this farm bill could mark a historically significant inflection point. Farm bills since the 1970s have tried to become more market-driven, by lessening the impact of USDA farm programs on the choices made by farmers.  Read more »

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