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The New Urban Indoor Industrial Agriculture… but Why?

Posted by Andrew McGuire | November 16, 2016
Vertical farm crop wall demonstration project. Where is the soil? Photo: State Dept. via Flickr cc

Vertical farm crop wall demonstration project. Where is the soil?
Photo: State Dept. via Flickr cc

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 »

Defending the Proper Use of Monoculture

Posted by Andrew McGuire | September 27, 2016
Monoculture of dry edible beans. Photo: A. McGuire.

Monoculture of dry edible beans. Photo: A. McGuire.

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 »

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Washington organic apples – nearly a billion strong!

Posted by David Granatstein | August 29, 2016
‘Gala’ apples being harvested as part of a WSU organic apple study in Wenatchee. Photo: D. Granatstein.

‘Gala’ apples being harvested as part of a WSU organic apple study in Wenatchee. Photo: D. Granatstein.

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 »

Orchard Netting: A Catch All for Climate Change Adaptation

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.

Honeycrisp apples like these are an important tree fruit crop in the state. Photo: D. Rivard via Flickr c.c.

Honeycrisp apples like these are an important crop to the PNW tree fruit industry. Photo: D. Rivard via Flickr c.c.

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 »

Biosolids – understanding benefits and risks

Posted by Georgine Yorgey | August 16, 2016
Biosolids being spread on agricultural fields. Photo: A. Bary.

Biosolids being spread on agricultural fields. Photo: A. Bary.

Biosolids?  Yes, that means sewage sludge.  Well, sort of.  But before you say YUCK and click off the page, let’s start with what they really are: biosolids are the materials produced from digestion of sewage at city wastewater treatment plants. They are rich in plant nutrients such as organic carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus, and can be applied to wheat, alfalfa, and timber land for plant fertilization and soil conditioning. When biosolids are applied at rates that meet plant nutrient needs, farmers and researchers are seeing crop yields equal to or greater than those seen with synthetic fertilizer. Applying biosolids as fertilizer also allows them to be recycled for a useful purpose rather than disposed of in landfills or incinerated.

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The Benefits of Combining Organic and Synthetic Nitrogen Sources

Posted by Andrew McGuire | June 26, 2016

Dan Sullivan, OSU soil scientist, caught my attention during his presentation at the 2014 Building Soils for Better Crops workshop. Speaking about organic amendments and how to use them for both building soils and for nutrient supply to crops, Sullivan suggested that low nutrient organic amendments, like compost or composted manures, be used in combination with synthetic nitrogen fertilizers. This combo, he said, has benefits over the use of either by itself.

Wheat could benefit from a combination of organic and synthetic nitrogen sources. Photo: USDA ARS

Wheat could benefit from a combination of organic and synthetic nitrogen sources. Photo: USDA ARS

The decomposition that produces compost reduces its nutrient content and stabilizes it. Because it has decomposed some, more of it will end up as soil organic matter than with fresh organic materials. When compost is applied to a field, it will continue to decompose slowly – faster as the soil warms up – releasing a slow stream of nitrogen into the soil solution.  If the compost is being used as a nitrogen source, this flow of nitrogen often cannot keep up with crop demand. One option is to use organic materials with higher amounts of available nitrogen, but these are very expensive; I found a liquid hydrolyzed fish product that could be applied through irrigation water, but it cost $17.76 per pound of nitrogen, over 20 times the price of synthetic fertilizer nitrogen. At this price, these materials make economic sense only for very high value organic crops. This is most likely why organic wheat, a lower value crop than organic vegetables or fruit, produces less grain with lower protein content than wheat produced with synthetic nitrogen fertilizers (Seufert et al., 2012).

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2016 BIOAg Projects

Posted by Chad Kruger | April 7, 2016
B. Gerdeman will study the potential of predatory flies as pest control in raspberry for spotted wing drosophila (pictured). Photo: H. Burrack, NCSU, via Flickr CC.

B. Gerdeman will study the potential of predatory flies as pest control in raspberry for spotted wing drosophila (pictured). Photo: H. Burrack, NCSU, via Flickr CC.

Each year CSANR runs a solicitation for new research and extension proposals called the BIOAg program. This program has proven to be a critical factor in the success of CSANR Affiliated Faculty in establishing successful new projects and initiatives that address sustainability concerns for Washington’s food and agriculture system.

This program is the primary mechanism we have for engaging new WSU faculty in sustainable and organic agricultural research. This round we funded 7 projects (28% of proposed projects) covering berries, grapes, apples, vegetables, livestock and grains. The 7 projects represented 9 faculty investigators new to the BIOAg Program, representing Crop & Soil Sciences, Horticulture, Biological Systems Engineering, and Entomology. All 7 funded projects have a relationship with the priority area of improving soil quality. A list of funded projects is in the table below, and you can read more details on each of the projects here: Read more »

Explore Anaerobic Digestion investment options before investing a cent! A Quick Introduction to the AD System Enterprise Budget Calculator

Posted by Gregory Astill | March 10, 2016

Gregory Astill, PhD Economics, Economic Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture. The views expressed are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Economic Research Service or the USDA.

Photo: D. Story

Photo: D. Story

Ever struggled with deciding whether to invest in new technology, and which of a range of technology options would be a better fit to your operation? The Anaerobic Digester (AD) System Enterprise Budget Calculator is a tool that is intended for dairy owners, AD system industry experts, and AD researchers to explore such options. The tool will calculate the net present value of your investment in an AD system, under specific technology and price scenarios. And though we cannot guarantee that you will achieve the results generated by this tool, you can explore the economic benefits of different AD technologies. Just make sure that all price, input and output quantities, and other details accurately reflect your unique situation. Read more »

Filed under Energy, Sustainable Practices and Technology
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Stripper headers – a new, cool tool for adapting to a changing climate (w/ video)

Posted by Georgine Yorgey | March 8, 2016
Adaptations can include new equipment to handle harvest differently, like the stripper header, mounted on this combine. Photo: H. Davis

Adaptations can include new equipment to handle harvest differently, like the stripper header, mounted on this combine. Photo: H. Davis

At this point, we have learned quite a bit about the likely implications of climate change for agriculture. A couple of good summaries of national implications and likely impacts in the Pacific Northwest are good places to start, if you want to get more detail.

Though significant questions remain, it’s clear that producers across our region will need to adapt to warmer and drier summers, warmer winters, and changes in when irrigation water is available. But what does that adaptation look like?  That’s the question we asked when we started the “Farmer-to-Farmer” case study series. We wanted to know what strategies forward-thinking farmers in our region are already using, that could enhance resilience in the face of climate change. And we wanted to look at strategies across a number of production systems in the Pacific Northwest—dryland and irrigated cropping systems, beef production, and dairies. Read more »

It is time to know your CROPTIME!

Posted by Adekunle Adesanya | January 19, 2016

This year CSANR sponsored registration for several WSU students to attend Tilth Producers of WA annual 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.

Adekunle Adesanya, PhD student in entomology and guest-blogger.

Adekunle Adesanya, PhD student in entomology and guest-blogger.

In humans, after decades of research and innovation, it is still very tricky for medical practitioners to accurately predict a child’s delivery date. Though the doctors estimate delivery dates for expectant mothers, these dates are rarely exactly correct, despite the level of technology involved.

Predicting crop harvest time is not all that different from estimating due dates. Have you ever wondered how complex and challenging it could be to predict the precise harvest date of crops, especially for small scale farmers with limited resources to invest in specialized technologies to support on-farm decision making system? As with doctors and delivery due dates, farmers have an estimate of the time required for the plants to achieve some phenotypic attributes like flowering, fruit setting and ripening etc., but getting it exactly right is rare. This prediction is usually based on prior knowledge about the crop’s biology. However, plant growth and development is largely dependent upon elements of the immediate environment (temperature, light duration, humidity etc.). Thus, crop output in terms of quantity, quality, and timing is dependent on the micro-environment. Therefore for a typical small scale organic farmer, a big question is how to accurately and precisely predict the time period in which harvest is optimal. This is critical to meeting the volatile demand of customers in a timely way (CSA, food co-ops etc.). Read more »

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