Check it out: New Resource on Cropland Soils’ Capacity to Store Carbon Through Improved Management

By Georgine Yorgey

Field of recently ploughed soil

The question “How much additional carbon could cropland soils store through improved management?” led to a new resource being developed. Photo: Leslie Michael.

When you work at a land grant university, people sometimes reach out to you with questions.  I love this aspect of my job, as it often gives me a chance to bridge the divide between research and the real world.  In 2019, one of the questions I got most often was “How much additional carbon could cropland soils store through improved management?”

Over the years, we had already worked to gather the available evidence from across the Pacific Northwest region and help managers interpret that evidence.  But these questions provided us an excuse to re-visit the question. Working with colleagues from Washington State University’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources and the Department of Biological Systems Engineering, we prepared a white paper summarizing the existing experimental and modeling evidence relating to the carbon sequestration potential of cropland soils in the Pacific Northwest. Continue reading

Exploring Whether Washington State Could Become the New California in Vegetable Production

By Fidel Maureira, Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Biological Systems Engineering, Washington State University

Climate variability and change—rising temperatures, more frequent heat waves, drought, less snowpack, pests and diseases, wildfires, and the resulting over-use of resources such as groundwater—are creating critical agricultural production risks for California, the leading vegetable and fruit producing area of the United States. These issues are projected to get worse in the future. In contrast, climate change-related challenges in the Columbia River Basin are projected to be less extreme and there is potential for a more favorable climate for certain agricultural products, providing the Columbia River Basin with relative competitive advantages over California. Can the irrigated areas of Washington State supplement some of the expected losses in vegetable production in California? The answer is not clear yet, but we are exploring the implications of increasing vegetable production in the Basin, using climate change projections and models that quantify how regional hydrology and crops would respond to those climatic changes (Figure 1).

Diagram showing expected changes in vegetable production and certain crops expected in the future, in Washington and California

Figure 1. Vegetable production in California will suffer a reduction in total production because of rising temperatures effects on vegetables and a higher risk of water shortages. In contrast, Washington will show positive conditions in mid-century for growing crops and good supply of water. Can the irrigated areas of Washington State supplement some of the expected losses in vegetable production in California? This could be a beginning of new vegetable production in irrigated areas of Washington. Footnotes refer to references, below.

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We Need to Know if Stormwater Runoff in Near-Urban Agricultural Areas Impacts Soil or Plant Health

By Jordan Jobe, Master of Environmental Management,  Washington State University-Puyallup

view of field by a road, with houses and buildings in the far background

The Puyallup Watershed in Washington State has dozens of family farms pinned between townhomes, traffic-dense roads, commuter train tracks, and industrial sites. Photo: Jordan Jobe.

As farmland in the Puyallup Watershed increasingly finds itself pinned between townhomes, traffic-dense roads, commuter train tracks, and industrial sites, it seems important to be aware of unintended impacts on agricultural viability. Today, the Puyallup River floodplain is used in a variety of ways, including residential housing, commercial and industrial uses, salmon habitat (including restoration and mitigation sites), and agricultural production. The floodplain has fertile, rich soil and is home to dozens of farms growing mixed vegetable row crops.

The Puyallup Watershed has around 14,000 acres of active agricultural production, including dozens of family farms in these fertile floodplain areas. However, as land prices skyrocket and development occurs, farmers often have to face difficult decisions about what to do with their land. Continue reading

How Global Change May Impact the Food, Energy, and Water Sectors in the Columbia River Basin

By Matt Yourek, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Washington State University

Global-scale changes—economic, sociological, climatological—have important ramifications for local communities. For example, land-use change alters the balance of food, energy, and water resources within a basin. The research group I am part of is interested in understanding the future impact of land-use change in the Columbia River Basin. This requires first understanding how land use is expected to change, and then exploring the impacts of these changes on the different sectors.

Future changes in the Columbia River Basin

Tractor and mower moving away, leaving a row of cut grass

Figure 1. Harvesting switchgrass with disc mower. Photo from Farm-Energy, April 3, 2019 (https://farm-energy.extension.org/switchgrass-panicum-virgatum-for-biofuel-production/).

The Global Change Assessment Model (GCAM) simulates supply and demand of fuel and agro-forestry commodities at the national level under a set of standardized greenhouse gas emission scenarios known as representative concentration pathways (RCPs). In the model, markets in food and fuel determine how land use changes. Biofuel is among the industries expected to benefit from low carbon emission policies (Figure 1). To be meaningful within the Columbia River Basin, the broad-scale changes in land use for biofuels and other crops must be disaggregated to a finer scale. Continue reading

No-Regrets Strategies that Benefit Ranching Operations and Provide Climate Resilience

By Georgine Yorgey

Ranchers already manage multiple risks—including those related to economics, production, the environment, and weather. Climate change represents an added risk, but one that is challenging to manage because impacts are uncertain, variable over space and time, and often perceived as being only of concern in the distant future (Leiserowitz et al. 2011).

Cattle grazing open rangeland, with forested hills and mountains in the background

Cattle grazing is the main productive activity in the high desert and dry forest landscape of the Bear Valley, near Seneca, Oregon, where our most recent resilience case study is focused. Photo: Jack and Teresa Southworth.

However, despite this challenge, there is a growing recognition that the same strategies that make ranches and rangelands more resilient to climate change will also provide other important co-benefits. These include enhanced resilience to current weather-related variability, enhanced ecological functioning, and in at least some cases, enhanced or more sustainable economic performance.

Implementing these “no-regrets” strategies is thus important for enhancing the resilience of rangelands to a wide variety of shocks including, but not limited to, climate change. Continue reading

Check it out: “Skeptical Science” a Climate Science Resource for Extension Professionals

By Chris Schnepf

Screen shot showing a list of 6 climate myths and "what the science says" response links.

The Skeptical Science website outlines nearly 200 common climate change myths, and summarizes scientific responses to each assertion, with links to cited research. Screen shot from https://skepticalscience.com/argument.php.

One of the biggest challenges facing extension professionals is how to address climate change, especially in the context of people asking questions or making assertions that challenge climate science. Many of these questions have some kind of “gotcha” premise or multi-layered assumptions which must be pulled out and addressed individually to respond.

These kinds of questions are difficult to deal with even on comparatively simple topics like managing a specific insect pest, but they are even more challenging in an arena as complex as climate change, especially since many extension educators do not have as much depth of training as they do in a specific discipline such as agronomy or forestry.  Continue reading

Climate Adaptation: USDA Programs and Resources That Can Help

By Paris Edwards, Haley Case-Scott, and Holly R. Prendeville, USDA Northwest Climate Hub

Rural landscape showing flooded fields, roads, and buildings

Figure 1. Drone photo of highway 34 closed near Corvallis, Oregon. 11 April, 2019. Photo: Oregon Department of Transportation under CC BY 2.0.

Whether you are reading the news or talking with your community, the number of stories about how climate change and its impacts affect daily life and business across the Northwest, the United States, and the world is growing. Recently, there have been a number of extreme weather events in the Northwest. In January 2019, central Washington was hit by a blizzard that devastated dairy farmers. In April, Oregon rivers, including the Willamette and Santiam, reached flood stages that caused debris flows, pollution, and lead to evacuations throughout Eugene (Figure 1). Boise, Idaho experienced record rainfall between January and May this year, which contributed to grass growth throughout the region and raised concerns about an increase in wildland fire potential. Fortunately, cooler temperatures prevailed, resulting in a relatively mild wildland fire season and a break from smoke for Idaho, Oregon and Washington. Although it isn’t always clear if a particular event is due to climate change, more frequent and extreme weather occurrences are expected. These current events, alongside disasters of the recent past, highlight what we can expect to see more often in the future, given the predicted increases in flooding, extreme heat events, drought, and wildfire. Such events give added urgency to the need for efforts to reduce negative impacts and support resilience (Jay et al., 2019). Yet it is challenging for producers and natural resource managers to find the resources they need to do so. Continue reading

How Rangeland Resilience Can Help Ranchers Facing Climate Change Impacts

By Tipton D. Hudson, Washington State University Extension, and Georgine Yorgey, Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources, Washington State University

Natural climate variability, including variability driven by El Niño (ENSO) and Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) cycles, dominates the Pacific Northwest’s climate and will remain very important into the future. At the same time, long-term climatic changes are already being felt, and are expected to continue. Average temperatures are increasing, with the largest increases expected in the summer. Precipitation projections are less certain, may not be large compared to the natural variability we already experience from year to year, but modeling points to a decline in summer precipitation. Snowpack is projected to decline, with earlier snowmelt and runoff as the climate warms. Soils are expected to be drier, though plants may be able to use the available moisture more efficiently because of the “carbon fertilization effect.” Yet increasing temperatures and drier fuels are expected to lead to higher fire risk, which can impact large swaths of rangelands any particular year.

Portrait of rancher, with cattle on the range in the background

Figure 1. Russ Stingley, a rancher in Kittitas, Washington recently profiled in a case study on increasing resilience among ranchers in the Pacific Northwest. Photo: Darrell Kilgore.

These changes and the variability of the weather from year to year affect the availability of forage for livestock grazing inland Pacific Northwest rangelands, as we discussed in an earlier AgClimate article. What, if anything, can ranchers do to prepare? We delve into what one rancher is already doing in a recently published case study in our Rancher-to-Rancher Series: Increasing Resilience Among Ranchers in the Pacific Northwest. This case study describes Russ Stingley’s cow-calf operation in Kittitas, Washington (Figure 1). And as “resilience” is a sometimes overused term, here is the context we provide in the case study on what it means for rangeland management under a changing climate. Continue reading

What Specialty Crops Might Thrive in the Northwest in the Future?

By Lauren Parker, University of California, Davis (formerly University of Idaho)

Closeup of blueberry plants, with fruit

Figure 1. Blueberries, a crop that has seen rapid growth in the Northwest recently. Photo: Jacqui Osbourne under CC BY-NC 2.0.

From Washington apple orchards to Oregon blueberry fields and Idaho’s burgeoning vineyards, the Northwest is well-known for its agricultural abundance (Figure 1). Specialty crop production across the three states is a multi-billion dollar enterprise and, like virtually all agricultural systems across the region, will be challenged by climate change (Houston et al. 2018).

Climate change is also projected to impact California specialty crop production (Lobell et al. 2006), lowering yields of some crops and perhaps entirely eliminating the production of others. As warming temperatures reshape where the climate is suitable for perennial crops in California, some specialty crop growers in cooler regions like the Northwest may benefit. Continue reading

The Modern Apple Orchard: What Does It Entail?

By Antoinette Avorgbedor, Intern at Washington State University’s Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center and the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources

Small apple trees in a v-trellis system, with bare soil around the line of trees

There has been a steady increase in orchards planted with sparsely branched, thin trees at increased tree planting densities. Photo: Washington State Department of Agriculture under CC BY-NC 2.0.

I have been curious as to why apple trees in modern, commercial orchards don’t look like the cartoon drawing that I grew up seeing with a thick trunk and a wide, round canopy of leaves. Modern tree fruit orchards are planted with a goal of maximizing efficiency and productivity. Mechanized operations are ideal for high-value, large operations to increase profitability. Consequently, there has been a steady increase in sparsely-branched thin trees that are usually more simply pruned. These planting systems are accompanied by increased tree planting densities. Over the last 50 years, densities have increased from 40 trees/acre to in some cases more than 3,000 trees/acre. There are many benefits to this new system of orchard management, but not without a cost to producers. The question is, will the balance of benefits and costs change as the climate changes? Continue reading