Sustainable Practices and Technology

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

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

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