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Narrowing the Conventional Versus Organic Farming System Yield Gap

Posted by Chuck Benbrook | December 9, 2014

Nearly everyone agrees that producing ample, nutritious and safe food to feed 9 billion people, with minimal harm to the environment, is one of mankind’s grand challenges. In the May 14, 2014 issue of National Geographic, Jonathan Foley sets out a thoughtful, five-step plan that highlighted these imperatives:

  • “Freeze agriculture’s footprint” (e.g., stop clearing tropical rainforests),
  • “Grow more on the farms we’ve got” (close the yield gap, more multi-cropping),
  • “Use resources more efficiently” (help farmers “get smarter”),
  • “Shift diets” (more fresh fruits and veggies, less grain-fed meat), and
  • “Reduce waste” (25% food calories wasted; 50% of food by weight). Read more »

Precision nitrogen can benefit both farmers and the climate

Posted by Georgine Yorgey | October 21, 2014

In a previous post, I explained that available evidence currently indicates nitrous oxide emissions may be fairly low in the inland Pacific Northwest, compared to other cropland agricultural systems in the U.S. and world. If ongoing research confirms these early results, then I suggested that efforts to reduce nitrous oxide emissions need to focus on strategies that offered strong co-benefits. Read more »

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 »

FY15 BIOAg Request For Proposals released

Posted by Chad Kruger | September 25, 2014

BIOAg logoThis week, CSANR released its annual BIOAg Program request for proposals for new research and extension projects. The RFP can be found here.

This competitive grant program is the key mechanism that CSANR has to engage a broad, interdisciplinary spectrum of WSU faculty in projects that further the development, understanding, and use of biologically intensive and/or organic principles, practices, and technologies to improve the sustainability of agriculture and food systems in Washington State. Read more »

Dairy Waste Biorefineries: An Innovative Way to Further Reduce Greenhouse Gases on Dairies in Washington State

Posted by Nicholas Kennedy | September 3, 2014

Washington State, 10th in milk production nationally, is also at the top of the list for greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions produced from dairy cattle. According to the latest statistics by the EPA, in 2012 Washington State ranked 8th in methane (CH4) emissions from dairy manure management and 12th in nitrous oxide (NO) emissions (EPA, 2014). Understanding the effect the dairy industry has on climate change has led the state to leverage its many public research institutions and agencies including the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA), Washington State Department of Ecology, and Washington State University’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources  (WSU CSANR) to help dairy farmers better manage and mitigate GHG emissions on large scale dairies also known as concentrated animals feeding operations (CAFOs). Read more »

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 »

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 »

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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 »

When engineering a green solution has gone too far…

Posted by Chad Kruger | May 12, 2014

I’ve seen a lot of crazy ideas in the realm of agricultural technology and even toyed with a few crazy ideas myself. Crazy ideas seem to have an appeal in our society that exceeds any rational expectation for the likely success or concern regarding the downside of any given technology. Perhaps this is because people are always looking for the next revolutionary technology like tractors, hybrid seeds, and solar fence electrifiers. Or perhaps it’s because we’re hard-wired to expect technological silver bullets to solve distinctly human problems. In fact, I suspect the reason that our own crazy (and not quite perfect) idea for a household-scale biogas reactor is among the most visited pages on the CSANR website is because it conjures up images of this infamous science fiction idea:

Who wouldn’t want to have that? Read more »

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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