Category Archives: Sustainable Practices

The Devil is in the Process: Co-composting Biochar Could Benefit Crop Growth and the Environment

By Karen Hills

Biochar has the potential to sequester carbon and improve the properties of soils when used as an agricultural amendment. However, biochar will only be a viable option for carbon sequestration if there are uses and viable markets for this biochar. In recent years, there has been interest in adding biochar to agricultural soils in conjunction with compost, and in some cases, “co-composting” biochar—putting the biochar in with the feedstock before the composting altogether. Read on to learn about a study led by Dr. David Gang, a professor at Washington State University’s Institute of Biological Chemistry, indicating that co-composting can provide additional benefits, both during the composting process and to the crops grown in soil amended with the resulting co-composted biochar.

Three people around equipment on a compost pile

Figure 1. Mark Fuchs (left), John Cleary (right) (both of the Washington Department of Ecology) and Nathan Stacey (middle, WSU) use equipment to measure gas emissions from a commercial scale co-composting experiment. Photo: Doug Collins, WSU.

Continue reading

Check it out: New Publication – Cultivating Climate Resilience on Farms and Ranches

By Gabrielle Roesch-McNally

Sunset over a flooded agricultural landscape.

Farms and ranches are expected to face challenges as climate change leads to more extreme and variable weather. Photo: Flickr user Brent M. under CC BY 2.0.

USDA SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education) recently published a new resource for land managers and those who advise them titled, “Cultivating Climate Resilience on Farms and Ranches.” This resource outlines some of the challenges that farmers and ranchers will face as climate change leads to more extreme and variable weather. While the resource is national in scope, there is a great table that briefly explores the observed and expected changes in weather across seven U.S. regions, including the Northwest (Table 1). Continue reading

Tools for Reducing the Increasing Forest Fire Risks

By Chris Schnepf

Rubble of a burned house, surrounded by scorched trees

Different factors can contribute to homes burning in catastrophic fires, including climate change and where people choose to build. Photo: C. Schnepf.

It was impossible to watch all the media coverage of the California fires last year, with many homes and forests burning, and not be moved. When large destructive fires like this hit, people have a natural desire to put some meaning to it. A variety of voices spoke of the changes in climate as being the culprit. Some pointed to fuel build-ups that were heavier than those forests had historically. Others pointed to people moving into parts of the landscape that were very fire prone, and suggested it was only a matter time before homes burned in forest fires. As with so many things, all these explanations for the impact of the fires contain some truth. Continue reading

Shared Data is a Key Part of Integrated Floodplain Management in the Puyallup Watershed

By Jordan Jobe, Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources, Washington State University

In the Puget Sound Region, it’s clear that climate change impacts will involve changes in precipitation that will impact agriculture, especially agriculture in floodplain areas (Mauger et al. 2015). However, it’s not yet known how precipitation pattern changes will combine with changes in stormwater run-off and sea-level rise… and how these changes might differ between different watersheds. Flood risk reduction folks want this information so that they know how to properly size new culverts. Fish folks want this information to place and design salmon habitat restoration projects.

A drainage ditch very full with brown, near-stagnant water.

Nancy’s Ditch, a key agricultural ditch in the Puyallup Watershed’s Clear Creek area, is consistently slow-flowing and full of water. Photo: J. Jobe.

Continue reading

Flexibility is Key to Northwest Cattle Production’s Future Success

By Laurie Houston

The impact of climate change on cattle producers in the Northwest is not expected to be as extreme as other regions of the United States.  According to a recent study led by Shannon Neibergs and published in Climatic Change, Northwest producers have a comparative advantage because droughts will be less severe in the Northwest and they have access to feed via extensive irrigation systems than can mitigate the effects of drought. That’s compared to the rest of the United States, though. But what impacts can livestock producers expect here? Can they continue business as usual? Probably not, but there are clear options moving forward, conclude Neibergs and colleagues. Continue reading

Northwest Rangelands – Where Do our Climate Vulnerabilities Lie?

By Georgine G. Yorgey

What will climate change look like on Pacific Northwest rangelands, which cover a huge area of our region? It will undoubtedly have complex impacts on the physical environment, environmental stressors, socio-economic factors, and the animals, plants, and other rangeland organisms. Recently, I took a look at the literature to see what the state of the science is relating to rangelands’ vulnerability to climate change. While there are a number of relevant studies that I mention below, I focus in this article on one of the few quantitative analyses, led by Matt Reeves, that updates Reeves’ previous work that was also discussed on agclimate.net.

Native sagebrush steppe with windmills in the background, cattle in the mid-ground, and water tubs in the foreground

Supplemental water helps encourage more distributed grazing across rangelands near Ellensburg, WA. Photo: CAHNRS Communications

Continue reading

Irrigation Efficiency: What Do the Researchers Say?

By Keyvan Malek

Sprinklers on a center pivot arm spraying a plowed, bare field, with trucks in the background

Are more efficient irrigation systems good for farmers and the rest of society? The answer depends on who you ask. Photo: Kay Ledbetter/Texas A&M AgriLife Research under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Are more efficient irrigation systems good for farmers and the rest of society? This is a question that may receive a straight “yes” from many of our readers. However, agro-hydrologists and others know that there’s more to the discussion. Continue reading

Check it out: How to Spread Biochar in Forests

By Sonia A. Hall

A number of our articles this year discussed using biochar in agriculture and in forestry. These earlier articles did not delve into the methods to apply biochar on large tracts of forests. You’d expect this to be a much more challenging task than spreading biochar on croplands. Researchers and technology developers are tackling this particular issue, developing a specialized forest biochar spreader. Take a few minutes to check out their Science Spotlights article and their video. Among the details they discuss in the video is a point Chris Schnepf and Darren McAvoy made in their AgClimate article: biochar can use—and store the carbon that is in—those “leftovers” that otherwise get burned, releasing that carbon into the atmosphere.

Learning from Some of the First Adopters of High Residue Farming in the Columbia Basin

By Georgine Yorgey

Topsoil has often been referred to as the “thin skin” of our planet, essential for producing the food that feeds us. Because it’s not easy to create new topsoil, conserving the soil that we have is essential for maintaining our region’s agricultural productivity. Reducing tillage, and leaving residue on the soil surface, is a proven way to reduce erosion. As residues break down, they increase the concentration of soil organic matter at the surface of the soil and help to form soil aggregates—a composite of soil particles that clump or bind together, giving soil its structure. Soil that is aggregated in larger particles is less prone to being eroded by the wind. And soils with more organic matter also benefit the climate, by storing more carbon.

A seeder planting between strips of wheat

Planting the wheat cover crop in strips makes planting corn easier, as the planter does not encounter roots and leaves in the planting strip. Photo: Darrell Kilgore

Continue reading

Check it out: Looking into New Technologies, Governance and Market Ideas to Improve our Use of Water

By Sonia A. Hall

Water is a precious resource in the Columbia River Basin, and climate change could lead to changes in factors that affect how to most efficiently allocate water to the many uses and values in the region, a challenge even now. This future is not bleak, however. A research team led by Jon Yoder at Washington State University has been funded to develop new technologies to help decision-makers improve how they use water to meet the diverse needs of farms, people, fish and the rivers themselves. Check out this article on their research plans into smart market technology, seasonal forecasting, and automated monitoring of agricultural (and other) water use.

Apricot orchard in bloom, with storm clouds overhead.

Seasonal forecasting of water availability and crop productivity can inform the decisions of potential water market participants. Photo: Flickr user Pictoscribe under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.