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The Essentials of Sustaining Agricultural Production

Posted by Andrew McGuire | July 16, 2015

As a member of the Washington State University Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources, I work as an irrigated cropping systems agronomist working on ways to sustain agriculture (a professor I know promotes the use of tee shirts that say “I’m an AGRONOMIST – look it up!”). In doing this, I have come to realize that there are certain requirements that agriculture must meet to produce food and to keep producing food (yes, fiber too, and other non-food products, but mainly we are concerned with food production). I view these as a hierarchy, such that if the top requirement is not attained, the lower requirements do not mean much, but once the top requirement has been met, we can move to the next one, provided that how we do it does not threaten any of the requirements above it. Each component is required, but not sufficient; all of them are needed. Read more »

Monoculture vs. Polyculture Part II: “Straight up” beats “cocktails” for cover crop ecosystem services

Posted by Andrew McGuire | June 11, 2015

Cover crop mixtures, known as “cocktails” by some, are being promoted as having benefits over cover crops planted as monocultures. As I described in Part I, I reviewed recent research results to get at the answer to the question, “are monocultures or polycultures better when it comes to cover crops?” I found that, for biomass production at least, monocultures were actually best (see Part I). Now, let’s look at other services provided by cover crops and compare polycultures and monocultures. (See an explanation of monocultures, polycultures, overyielding and transgressive overyielding here)

Is a single-species cover crop or a cocktail mixture planting the best choice? Photos: A. McGuire.

Is a single-species cover crop or a “cocktail” mixture the best choice? Photos: A. McGuire.

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Monoculture vs. Polyculture Part I: “Straight up” beats “cocktails” for cover crop productivity

Posted by Andrew McGuire | June 8, 2015

Planting cover crop mixtures is very popular right now. The practice has a feel-good aspect about it and, buoyed by the ecological theory, it fits with the current “mimic nature” strategy of agroecologists. In a previous blog post I demonstrated how difficult it is to do research on cover crop mixtures. Although difficult, there are intrepid researchers investigating this practice so I decided to see what they were finding. The results call into question the value of cover crop mixtures, as in many situations a monoculture cover crop would both produce more biomass and provide other desired services as well. Read more »

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Ecological Theories, Meta-Analysis, and the Benefits of Monocultures

Posted by Andrew McGuire | May 26, 2015

How do we go about increasing agricultural crop yields? As long as human populations are increasing, this is the primary challenge we face in agriculture. We must do this without threatening our ability to produce food in the future, and, if possible, without expansion of agricultural land (see graph below).

Decoupling of US corn production from area farmed. Data source: US Census Bureau (1975, 2012).

Decoupling of US corn production from area farmed. Data source: US Census Bureau (1975, 2012).

 

(From The Return of Nature; How Technology Liberates the Environment). Read more »

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2015 BIOAg Projects

Posted by Chad Kruger | April 14, 2015
Lynne Carpenter-Boggs was funded to research acid-tolerant rhizobia to improve the production of pulse crops like lentils. Photo: Nick Mote

Lynne Carpenter-Boggs was funded to research acid-tolerant rhizobia to improve the production of pulse crops like lentils. Photo: Nick Mote

Each year CSANR administers an internal competitive grant program called BIOAg to fund new research and education projects focused on improving the sustainability of agriculture in Washington State. To date, through BIOAg and precursor internal grant programs, CSANR has funded 150 projects – many of which have led to significant new investments of extramural funding to further advance these ideas. Over the course of the program [and within each year] we have funded projects ranging from basic science to applied research to extension and educational products and we’ve always been able to maintain a good blend across this continuum.  Read more »

What is Holistic Agriculture?

Posted by Bertie Weddell | April 1, 2015
Carol Schaffer

Photo: C. Schaffer

Recently, I watched a TV program about rehabilitation of sloths illegally taken from the wild for the pet trade in Colombia. According to the narrator, the sloths were treated with holistic medicine. This puzzled me. I thought holistic medicine involved treatment of body, mind, spirit, and emotions. I couldn’t help wondering what we know about the mental, spiritual, and emotional life of sloths. Read more »

Space Farming is Science FICTION

Posted by Andrew McGuire | March 27, 2015
The future of agriculture? Photo: A. S. Guerreirinho

The future of agriculture? Photo: A. S. Guerreirinho

It said on the screen, “Bioregenerating Soil-Based Space Agriculture.” The title of the talk was “Beyond Intensification.” The speaker, a prominent researcher and prolific author, someone who I thought would present clear thinking on how, in addition to intensification of current agriculture, we can go about producing enough food for the earth’s growing population.  I glanced around to see if anyone else was astonished.  Space farming, he said, was the next step after agricultural intensification with food coming from the Moon and Mars. “Has it come to that?” I thought.

I am a fan of science fiction, not a costumed, Trekkie-conference fan, but a fan. However, over the years, I have realized that the stories I enjoy most are mostly fiction; the science is often ignored. This is “soft” science fiction, the stuff of most Sci-Fi movies because there is a way to visit distant planets; think warp drives on the Enterprise, a hyperdrive in the Millennium Falcon, and wormholes in Interstellar. Read more »

Is this the new climate normal?

Posted by Chad Kruger | March 11, 2015
Patchy snow at the Summit at Snoqualmie ski area in February 2015 exemplifies the lack of snow in the Cascades. Photo: S. Ringman, Seattle Times.  Accessed via P. Stevens https://flic.kr/p/qegBhX

Patchy snow at the Summit at Snoqualmie ski area in February 2015 exemplifies the lack of snow in the Cascades. Photo: S. Ringman, Seattle Times. Accessed via P. Stevens https://flic.kr/p/qegBhX

I will remember winter 2014-2015 as the winter of seemingly never-ending fog, and snow that didn’t stick. That sucks on so many levels, particularly for what it will mean come July and August when we have a serious water problem in the Inland Northwest. I keep getting asked “is this climate change” and “is this what we have to look forward to?” Read more »

Does an anaerobic digester cost too much?

Posted by Chad Kruger | March 9, 2015
Photo: Derrick Story

Photo: D. Story

Anaerobic digestion (AD) with methane capture and conversion is the most straight-forward, bankable strategy for reducing agricultural greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, it is the only agricultural carbon mitigation strategy that has achieved wide-spread acceptance in a variety of voluntary and mandatory carbon mitigation policies. In a sense, it is the closest thing to a “silver bullet” carbon mitigation solution that exists in agriculture. However, AD still has limited overall market penetration in US livestock production systems, in large part because of the perception that it is really expensive technology. Read more »

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 »

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