Posted by Tariq Khalil | January 18, 2017
This year CSANR sponsored registration for several WSU students to attend the Tilth Conference. We will be posting reflections written by the students over the next several weeks. Please feel free to comment and give these students your feedback.
My research work at Washington State University deals with environmental problems associated with big agricultural enterprises, with a focus on large dairy operations. However, I got an opportunity to hear the concerns of small acreage farmers during the Tilth Conference. A glance at the State of Washington statistics tells us that about 89% of the farms are classified as small farms. Like other small businesses, these farms are valuable community assets, generating both income and employment as well as serving critical environmental, aesthetic, and social functions. These small, family owned and operated farms produce a range of commodities from fresh vegetables and fruits to meats, dairy products, flowers, and grain crops. These small entrepreneurs, particularly those with organic practices, have a variety of challenges and fewer choices. A big challenge for these small organic farms is getting financial support. Many banks are reluctant to approve loans to them, as financial institutions do not consider very small operations to be viable agriculture. In contrast to the perceptions of lenders, however, consumer support is growing for small scale, local agriculture. Farmers are seeing a rise in community support for small farms and a preference for local and organic produce options, thus farmers are challenged to meet the demand with little financial support. Therefore, the potential for locally available nutrient sources could decrease the input cost. Read more »
Posted by Andrew McGuire | December 21, 2016
Cover crops are great. If I thought I could get away with it, I would just grow cover crops in my garden. They protect the soil, feed microbes, build soil structure, add root channels, and support beneficial insects. I think they look cool too. When cover crop mixtures got popular a few years ago, I got excited and grew a 17 species mix. It looked really cool, I mean, diverse, with all sorts of seeds that became all sorts of plants. I took pictures, showed my kids, and even had a neighborhood open garden event! (Well, maybe not that last one) Then I grew some vegetables after the cover crop. They did OK. Just OK. I wanted it to be the best tomato/squash/cucumber/lettuce crop ever, but I could not tell the difference between these vegetables and those I had grown after many previous un-biodiverse cover crops. Recent research results may explain this. Read more »
Posted by Georgine Yorgey | December 16, 2016
Organic matter – the organic component of soil – is key to soil health. Organic matter serves as a reservoir of nutrients for crops, provides soil aggregation, increases nutrient exchange, retains moisture, reduces compaction, reduces surface crusting, and increases water infiltration into the soil. And organic matter is closely related to soil organic carbon, the carbon stored in organic matter. Soils with high levels of organic matter have higher levels of carbon, and consequently also benefit the climate by “sequestering” carbon that otherwise would be in the atmosphere.
In the rain-fed croplands of the Pacific Northwest, wheat-based agriculture has historically mined carbon out of the soil. Near Pendleton, winter wheat grown every other year depleted soil organic carbon up to 63% over 80 years of cultivation. Re-building soil carbon is thus an important task for supporting continued agricultural productivity across the region. Read more »
Posted by Andrew McGuire | December 8, 2016
In a past post, I argued for the use of an herbicide instead of tillage to kill a soil-building cover crop. My post was mostly observation of the damage of tillage on the soil as compared to the lack of damage, at least visually, from the herbicide. But others suggested that herbicides may not be as benign in the soil as I portrayed them. Here is the latest science on the topic.
A series of reviews have been published on the effects of herbicides on the soil, starting with Bunemann et al. in 2006. They concluded, “The herbicides generally had no major effects on soil organisms.” More recently, a review by Rose et al. (2016) found, “Overall, the majority of papers reported negligible impacts of herbicides on soil microbial communities and beneficial soil functions when applied at recommended field-application rates.” Read more »
Posted by Andrew McGuire | December 1, 2016
For years, researchers have been looking to polycultures, biodiversity in space, as a way to improve agriculture (Trenbath 1974; Tilman et al. 1997; Cardinale et al. 2011; Finney and Kaye 2016). Behind this research is the idea that nature is the best model for agriculture. Because we find that nature is generally a polyculture, we should mimic this biodiversity on the farm. Natural is now viewed as the best option. Today, however, I want to commend a most unnatural practice, crop rotation.
Filed under Sustainable Practices and Technology
Posted by Georgine Yorgey | November 21, 2016
WSU Extension is hosting an upcoming workshop on the basics of High Residue Farming on November 30, 2016, 9:30-3:30 in Moses Lake. Details for those interested in attending are available here (lunch included if you pre-register by 11/22).
High residue farming is a term that covers a number of different specific farming practices, including strip-till and direct seeding. In all these systems, the amount of tillage is reduced in order to maintain crop residues on the soil surface. High residue farming provides a number of benefits, but two key ones include reducing wind erosion (and the need to replant sand-blasted crops) and reducing the amount of time and equipment needed to plant. It can also improve soil health, increase the amount of carbon stored in the soil, and in some cases increase the potential for double-cropping. Read more »
Posted by Andrew McGuire | November 16, 2016
There is a new style of urban agriculture appearing around the world. The efforts differ in details, but they all use buildings or structures not originally designed to grow plants – no greenhouses. Carried out in old shipping containers, warehouses, and high-rises, perhaps even in an old factory or two, these “farms” bring agriculture fully indoors. Without sunshine, these farms rely on artificial lights shining on plants 24 hours a day in some cases. Without soil, plants sit in plastic pipes, or float on polystyrene rafts, stacked in tiers. Without rain, nutrient enhanced water is cycled to the plant roots through piping, pumps and filters. Without wind, fans provide ventilation, ducts and vents deliver heated or cooled air for year-round production.
All this requires energy. These farms are plugged in, reliant on outside power. Outdoor farm fields are off the grid, at least for the production portion of the food chain. Even a continuous corn crop, the scorned example of “industrial” agriculture, is not affected by a blackout. While an outdoor “industrial” crop is still subject to the biological realities of crop growth cycles and seasons, crop production in these indoor farms can be sped up and streamlined. All it takes is lots pipes and tanks, cables and lights. Read more »
Posted by Andrew McGuire | September 27, 2016
Many bloggers have it wrong, Wikipedia had it wrong, and when I found that Agronomy Journal got it wrong, I was compelled to write on the topic once again. Monoculture is not the year-after-year production of the same crop in the same field. That is mono-cropping or continuous cropping, where the better alternative is crop rotation. Monoculture is “when only one crop species is grown in a field at a time” (Loomis and Connor, 1992), and the hard-to-manage alternative is polyculture or intercropping. You can take a picture of monoculture, but not of mono-cropping.
Just where this widespread misuse of “monoculture” started, I am not sure. It probably precedes the internet, and may have something to do with the similarity of monoculture and mono-cropping. More recently, Wikipedia played a part. For years it had a definition that combined the meanings of monoculture and mono-cropping. I suspect that this incorrect definition, and the fact that many people without agricultural backgrounds write about agriculture, has led to the widespread misuse we see today. Read more »
Filed under Sustainable Practices and Technology
Posted by David Granatstein | August 29, 2016
It is apple harvest time again in Washington State, albeit about two weeks earlier than normal in most places. This will be a large crop overall, and probably a record crop for organic apples. The projection is for a harvest of just over 11 million 40-pound boxes of organic apples. At 88 apples per box (a typical size), that’s over 950 million organic apples. And while this sounds like a lot, if everyone in the US (say, 300 million people) ate one apple a day, that supply would be gone in less than four days. Still, demand is growing by around 10-12% per year, according to the annual surveys done by the Organic Trade Association. Based on data from grocery store sales, apples are the number two fresh fruit sold by value (behind berries) for both conventional and organic. A major food retailer reported that their sales of organic apples increased nearly 50% in 2015 over the previous year, a huge jump. And average organic apple prices received by growers hit record highs last season. The total value of the packed organic apples was just under $400 million, with 70% or more going directly to growers. This is a substantial contribution to the state’s economy. Read more »
Posted by Brendon Anthony | August 22, 2016
Brendon Anthony is pursuing a Master of Science in the Horticulture program at Washington State University.
As a child in elementary school I learned that the two basic requirements for the growth and success of a plant are sunlight and water. However, as I have undergone further schooling and research, specifically in horticulture, I have learned how extremely simplified those requirements are. In reality, it takes numerous inputs and extensive management to steward the growth of a plant.
Though sunlight and water are not the full picture, they are certainly foundational. In the face of a changing climate with more extreme and unpredictable weather, they are resources that are becoming more and more challenging to preserve, utilize, and control. How to best manage sunlight and water is being investigated and tested by the Pacific Northwest tree fruit industry. This is an industry that relies on consistent temperatures both in the winter to facilitate dormancy, and during the growing season to prevent frost damage or sunburn. It is an industry that uses gallons upon gallons of water to ensure a high yield. So, how does an industry so dependent upon these crucial resources react to a rapidly changing climate, all while maintaining sustainability in their pocket books and in their surrounding environment? Read more »