Category Archives: Sustainable Practices

Are Efficient Irrigation Technologies a Winning Solution in the Yakima River Basin?

By Keyvan Malek, Civil and Environmental Engineering at Cornell University

In an earlier AgClimate.net article I discussed studies that have looked into the effects of investments in efficient irrigation technology on other water-related sectors. I argued that many studies have concluded that such investments might have negative implications for other water users, such as farmers or energy producers. I also mentioned that we were studying this issue, and promised to report our findings. This article and our soon-to-be-published paper deliver on that promise.

Why we did what we did 

Closeup of a drip irrigation line, with a drop of water falling onto soil covered with crop residue

Questions still remain around the impacts across a basin and for multiple water use sectors of more efficient irrigation systems, such as drip irrigation. Photo: Joby Elliott under CC BY 2.0.

Among agro-hydrologists—people who study the dynamics of water in agricultural systems—it is a widely accepted fact that one farmer’s investment in new, irrigation efficiency technologies negatively affects other farmers and sectors. However, questions remain, as past studies have not explicitly quantified the impacts of new irrigation systems on other sectors. What is the implication for overall agricultural productivity? How do efficient systems impact the ecological condition of the basin? How do energy production and demand change as people switch to more efficient systems? Are there any social implications? And do these productivity, ecological, and social implications change as the climate changes? Continue reading

Soil Health in Potato Production: Oxymoron or Opportunity?

By Karen Hills

A frequently used—at least, by soil scientists—definition for soil health is “the continued capacity of soil to function as a vital living system […] to sustain biological productivity, maintain the quality of air and water environments, and promote plant, animal, and human health” (Doran et al. 1996). Many different indicators—chemical, physical, and biological—are used to assess soil health.

Potato field with two harvesters and two trucks

Figure 1. Potatoes are economically important crops in many irrigated areas of the Pacific Northwest. Here, potatoes are harvested near Pasco, Washington. Photo: Athena Loos.

Growing potatoes is notoriously hard on the physical and biological health of soil (Figure 1). Potato production in many areas of the Pacific Northwest involves seven or more soil disturbance operations, leaves little residue on the field, and often involves the use of fumigants to control soilborne diseases. The economics of potato production often drive growers to utilize short rotations. But a suite of strategies are possible to improve soil health in potato production, including cover crops, rotating with perennial crops and crops that contribute high levels of residues, and incorporation of organic amendments. While growing green manure crops for biofumigation has probably achieved the most success and adoption in the region (see producer Dale Gies as an example), in this article I focus on a more challenging strategy that has received limited attention, but may have more direct climate change implications: tillage reduction. Continue reading

What You Need to Know About Fruit Acclimation to Heat Stress

By Antoinette Avorgbedor

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

Looking along grape vine rows, with arid hills in the background

Agriculture in arid conditions can be challenging for fruit development. Could acclimation help with those challenges? Photo: Cliff Hellis, under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Did you know that people indigenous to the hotter equatorial regions have much lower sweat rates than people in cooler regions of the world? Similar to the ability of the human body to adjust to different climatic conditions, plants have evolved various mechanisms to survive extreme weather conditions. Besides long-term evolutionary modifications, plants have been found to develop quick short-term tolerance to extreme environmental conditions. Many different plant species have been reported to develop “memory” to stress, which then helps protect against future adverse conditions. I found this topic pretty interesting. What types of benefits could be derived from a deeper understanding of how plants “acclimate” when experiencing physical stress factors? And could understanding this ability be useful for improving their tolerance to stress, so they can avoid some of the impacts of stress on fruit production? Continue reading

Sweat the Small Stuff, Like the Hessian Fly

By Doug Finkelnburg

Female Hessian fly laying an egg on a wheat leaf

Hessian fly, a modest pest of Pacific Northwest wheat, with potentially big impacts as the climate changes. Photo: Scott Bauer/USDA Agricultural Research Service under CC BY 3.0 US.

As climate change is occupying more space in public discourse, it is easy to focus on the attention-grabbing headlines about loss of sea ice, warming oceans, and more intense and frequent wildfires. Often overlooked are the seemingly subtle effects a changing climate presents and the ramifications these subtle changes can have. For example, let us discuss a modest pest of Pacific Northwest wheat, the Hessian fly. Continue reading

How Suitable is Apple Orchard Netting as a Sunburn Control Measure?

By Antoinette Avorgbedor

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

More likely than not, you have passed large apple orchards in your travels around the Pacific Northwest area and observed nets spanning wide areas of apple trees. Sometimes the entire top and all the sides of orchards are enclosed. A 2017 survey conducted in Washington State to assess the extent of netting found that about 5% of the surveyed acres were under nets and an additional 7% was estimated to be added in 2018 (Mupambi et al. 2019). Intuitively, you think nets are supposed to keep pests and trespassers out. At least, that is what I thought when I first saw an apple orchard covered with netting. That happens to be only a secondary reason for which tree fruit growers invest in such extensive enclosing techniques. A whopping 98.3% of the growers surveyed indicated that sunburn reduction was one of their most important reasons for using netting (the survey allowed growers to choose multiple reasons). I couldn’t help but wonder: What does this growing popularity of shade netting mean for the future of apple sunburn control?

Green apples with golden brown or dark brown patches on the skin

Sunburn in Granny Smith apples. Photos: I. Hanrahan and M. Mendoza. Reproduced with permission, from Mupambi et al. 2019.

Continue reading

Check it out: The Black Box of Soil Organic Matter and Soil Health

By Sonia A. Hall

Two men bent over a shovelful of soil in a harvested wheat field.

The connection between soil health and carbon sequestration are complex, but advances in soil biology are teasing them out. Photo: Ron Nichols/USDA NRCS under CC BY 2.0.

A number of recent AgClimate.net articles focused on soil health (see for example this article on a soil health NRCS resource  and one on decomposition of wheat residues research). These articles commented on why soil health is important from a climate change perspective: more carbon-rich organic matter in the soil contributes to soil health, and also means less carbon as carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. So the potential exists for a win-win situation. As most things in life and agriculture, the connections between improved soil health and increased carbon sequestration are not as simple as they sound. Check out Andy McGuire’s elegant blog article describing why advances in soil biology—a foundational component of soil health—are important. He explains that it is not because they “change everything,” but because they help clarify why some things work and some don’t as much, and explain how complex that connection between soil health and carbon sequestration in soils appears to be. And though we may not want to hear it, we need this understanding to determine where the win-win practices that both increase soil health and sequester more carbon might realistically be. So take a few minutes to read McGuire’s article—it’s well worth the time!

What is Ocean Acidification? Should We Worry About It?

By Laurie Houston

A pile of oysters.

Oysters, an important industry in the Pacific Northwest, is vulnerable to ocean acidification. Photo: Steve Freeman under CC BY 2.0

I recently enlisted colleagues to write a blog article about the impact carbon dioxide emissions have on the Pacific Northwest oyster aquaculture industry. While reviewing the blog I realized that ocean acidification is probably a little-understood feature for many of us.  Therefore, I went in search of articles and videos that explain the science of ocean acidification, and its impact on ecosystems and economies. Continue reading

Check it out: New Resource for Healthy Soils and Climate Resilience

By Gabrielle Roesch-McNally

Hand holding a clod of soil full of roots and worms

Healthy soils can build greater resilience and reduce risks in the face of more extreme and variable weather. Photo: Aaron Roth/NRCS under CC BY-ND 2.0.

Climate change is expected to increase the vulnerability of our agriculture and natural resource systems. In the face of more extreme and variable weather, there are a suite of soil health management practices that land managers can adopt to build greater resilience and to reduce risks in their agricultural operations (examples of strategies in Figure 1).

Through engagement with land managers and those who work with them, including Extension, Natural Resource Conservation Services (NRCS), and Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) professionals, it became clear that many of them were interested in soil health and its linkages with climate change adaptation and mitigation. As a result, Oregon NRCS and the USDA Northwest Climate Hub partnered to develop a resource to aid advisors and land managers in discussing soil health and climate resilience together. Continue reading

What Does Winter Wheat Decomposition Have to Do with Climate?

by Georgine Yorgey

Managing crop residue is essential to reduced and no-till farming systems. These farming systems store more carbon than conventional farming systems, thereby mitigating climate change, enhancing soil health, and reducing soil erosion. In work described in a recent project report, Arron Carter and colleagues have been working to make it easier for growers with diverse needs across the Pacific Northwest to manage wheat residues. While the work is still in progress, it is an illustration of the kind of creative, applied work that is needed to make reduced-tillage systems easier to manage, and more widely adopted across the region.

Wheat growing in a field, with residues remaining from last year's harvest between the rows.

Wheat residue in a field in early July near Bickleton, WA. This area is part of the drier winter wheat-fallow area, where slower decomposing residues are preferred. Photo: Hilary Davis.

Growers in different parts of the dryland Pacific Northwest are seeking different residue characteristics. Continue reading

What can the Pacific Northwest Oyster Aquaculture Industry do about Ocean Acidification?

Market with baskets of shellfish for sale, and boards with prices in the background

Oysters for sale at Taylor Shellfish Farms in Samish Bay, WA. Photo: Brian Katz

By Thamanna Vasan and David M. Kling, Department of Applied Economics, Oregon State University

Chances are that, when you go to a restaurant for oysters in the Pacific Northwest, you’ll come across a menu that features the Pacific oyster. Also known as the immigrant oyster, the Pacific oyster made its way to the Northwest in the early 1900s from Japan, and has remained a staple in aquaculture in the region due to the ease with which growers can produce the oyster and the value it holds in markets.

Over the past decade the oyster industry in the Northwest has taken a hit. Due to rapidly changing ocean conditions, a growing process that once ran like clockwork has been experiencing major glitches, and public enemy number one is ocean acidification. Continue reading