Reflections on 2023

CSANR is an entity not easily explained in one fell swoop, but the range and breadth of projects we’ve undertaken throughout 2023 really showcase our primary goal: to find inspired solutions for the future of agriculture and the environment. Take a minute to reflect with us on 2023 and look forward to the developing projects and partnerships of 2024.

People talking next to fences in a field

Nitrogen Fertilizer and Soil Organic Matter: What Does the Evidence Say?

Does synthetic nitrogen fertilizer burn up soil organic matter? Whether you are focused on soil health, soil sequestration, or soil carbon credits, this is an important question. The persistent claim is that synthetic N fertilizer can “burn” soil carbon by supercharging the soil microbes. This claim mainly arises from a 2007 research article from researchers at the University of Illinois (Khan et al., 2007; open access here) and has recently resurfaced in another article (Jesmin et al., 2021) and the resulting (flawed) media coverage. However, a single study is far from conclusive – so what does the broader scientific literature say? And what have we learned in the last few decades on the relationship between synthetic N and soil organic matter?

Graphic showing proportions of soil organic matter

Putting Numbers to the Difficult Task of Increasing Soil Organic Matter

You may know that it is difficult to increase soil organic matter, but how difficult is it, with numbers? First, your crop harvest removes up to 50% of the biomass grown. Then, about 90% of the remaining crop biomass is decomposed by soil organisms leaving only 10% contributing to soil organic matter.  You also have to account for the annual 1-5% losses of existing soil organic matter. Using these and other estimates, let’s do some rough calculations so you know what to expect. The task is difficult, but the math is easy, I promise.

What it takes to increase soil organic matter from 1% to 1.1% in the top 6”.

Drought Resilience in Dry Land: Plant Auxins and Adaptive Management

Eastern Washington averages over five million acres of farmland dedicated to growing wheat and other rotational grain crops that rely solely on rainfall to water their plants, called dryland systems. Within these dryland systems, there is a wide range of potential precipitation levels. Some regions get as little as 7-9” annually, and in recent years, many are experiencing increased uncertainty in the amounts or timing of that precipitation.  Approaches to drought resilience in wheat, one of Washington’s major commodity crops, include adaptive farm practices and application of biochemical principles.

Eastern Washington state Landscapes and pastures on sunny day

Building the Case for Compost and Carbon Sequestration

In the spirit of “what gets measured gets managed”, there has been recent attention directed to how we can quantify potential benefits of compost as an agricultural soil amendment, and its potential to sequester carbon. Accounting for benefits in a defensible way is one key to creating channels for the most impactful action. The beauty of CSANR often lies in its ability to meet challenges like this where they are, to bring science to bear, and provide pathways forward to sustainable solutions.

bag of food scraps on top of compost

Meeting Food Demand through Agronomic Engineering and Incremental Transformation

In a realistic scenario, where not everyone gives up eating meat, where some in the developing world eat more like us, and where food waste is not zero, feeding 9+ billion people will require a lot more food. Ideally, this additional production would be from existing cropland, with better input efficiency, and fewer off-farm effects. How are we going to do this, both in currently high-yield agriculture and where significant yield-gaps exist? This is the topic of an important book chapter from Hunt, Kirkegaard, Celestina, and Porker (2019): Transformational agronomy: Restoring the role of agronomy in modern agricultural research.

Inforgraphic of agronomy considerations

Tracking Beneficial Parasites to Safeguard Cherry Production

Cesar Reyes Corral, PhD student in the Washington State University Department of Entomology, has identified several beneficial insects that may be key to long-term management of X-disease.   X-disease has recently emerged as a major threat to cherry, peach, and nectarine production in the Pacific Northwest, by producing small, bitter fruit. This disease is caused by a bacterium called Candidatus Phytoplasma pruni that is spread by insects called leafhoppers.

Close up of a fly and leafhopper

Breeding Better Food

What makes food better? Through the Soil to Society grant, we believe that breeding for increased health and nutritive value while improving agronomic and end-use qualities creates better food and a foundation for an accessible food system. Currently, WSU and USDA plant breeders are developing new varieties of barley, wheat, peas, lentils, quinoa and buckwheat with enhanced health and nutritive value through the Soil to Society grant. Each plant breeder is working on one or two of the above crops, with nutrition goals specific to the crop.

Close up of wheat in a field in the Palouse