Sustainable Practices and Technology

The Pyramid Scheme of High Organic Amendment Rates

There are many soil health benefits of applying high rates of organic amendments. For example, a recent meta-analysis found adding organic amendments increased soil organic matter across multiple studies by an average of 29% in croplands and 34% in grasslands (Figure 1 below, Beillouin et al., 2023). This is the power of winning a pyramid scheme. What the studies don’t consider, however, is what happens to the losers of a pyramid scheme. What do I mean by all this? With organic amendments, all of it had to grow somewhere.

A pyramid of squares leading to a top winner.

High rate of compost application showed stable yields in dryland wheat systems: a long-term study

Compost is used as a nutrient source as well as soil conditioner with a number of noted benefits in agricultural production systems. Compost application improves soil structure, soil moisture retention and builds up soil organic matter (Doran, 1996). Compost application has also been shown to activate soil microbial communities that help in nutrient cycling. Past studies have reported that compost helps improve soil water infiltration and binds the soil particles, helping reduce erodibility (Nigusse et al., 2015).

A field with exposed soil and compost. A small orange flag is in the corner.

Powering Planes through Arrested Anaerobic Digestion

Waste is not glamorous. Just look at the moldy pumpkin leftovers from Halloween and Thanksgiving (yes, there are still quite a few around my neighborhood!) and you know why so many of us prefer to not spend our time thinking about wastes. From an energy standpoint, however, waste contains a largely untapped reserve of resources that can be recycled into the products we utilize daily as consumers. When we recover these materials, we have fewer materials to deal with as waste – and also reduce our consumption of raw materials. So why is waste recovery not a typical component of our infrastructure?

Pumpkin rotting on the ground, orange color, background or backdrop

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

Where the Magic Happens: Climate-Smart Practices Funded through Sustainable Farms and Fields Program

I recently wrote a blog post announcing that Sustainable Farms and Fields (SFF) had launched. This innovative program housed in the Washington State Conservation Commission helps Conservation Districts and other public entities implement practices that are “climate-smart,” or in other words, sequester carbon in soil or vegetation and/or reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. This is one of only a handful of state programs in the U.S. helping agricultural producers be part of the climate solution and achieve co-benefits such as improving soil health.

Tractor in field with manure spreading actively spreading manure

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”.

Biochar Doping: Not Another Olympic Scandal

If you run in any of the same circles as me, biochar is a hot topic of conversation as of late. There is potential for biochar to serve as a solution to issues in soil health, climate change, and the reduction of biomass in waste streams, all while contributing to rural economies and reducing fire risk through forest thinning. In all of these instances, however, biochar must be utilized to have the intended effects. Agricultural application of biochar as a waste treatment and as a soil amendment allows for the reduction of one waste stream to become a net benefit for farms, the climate, and society.

Chemical structure of biochar in three views

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

Using Autonomous Pathing Orchard Robots

I spent this summer working as an intern at the AgAid Institute, a renowned research facility dedicated to advancing the field of sustainable agriculture through innovative technologies and methodologies. I have been making significant developments toward a fully autonomous orchard robot by expanding on the same safety technology used in self-driving cars. For the agricultural robot to operate effectively in an orchard, it must be able to “see” its surroundings precisely.

Robot tractor in a field lane