Category Archives: Sustainable Practices

Drought and small revenues – do they always go hand in hand?

By Sonia A. Hall

The conditions the Northwest experienced in 2015 have received a lot of attention, because we saw drought even though precipitation was close to normal. So the drought was due to higher temperatures, which meant snow didn’t accumulate anywhere near as much as it does on average. With less water available for irrigation in summer (see our earlier articles on the 2015 drought here and here), we’d expected irrigated crops to suffer, and we’d also expect growers’ bottom line to suffer.

Drought (and other stresses) can have a significant impact on crop production—see this comparison of the size of an ear of corn in Missouri during the 2012 drought to its “normal” size (space between hands). The expectation is that decreases in production will lead to drops in revenue, but is that always the case? Photo: Malory Ensor/KOMU News under CC BY 2.0

But when the National Agricultural Statistics Service’s Annual Statistical Bulletin for Washington State came out in October 2016, it was followed by an article in Capital Press discussing the apparent paradox that agricultural production values hit record highs in 2015, even though the region was under that newsworthy “snow drought.” Though I did not personally fact-check the Capital Press article, it’s an intriguing paradox. A presentation I heard at the recent (January 2017) Climate Impacts to Water Conference provided some insights. Ballav Aryal, a graduate student in the School of Economic Sciences at Washington State University, presented research that highlighted two factors that might explain this apparent paradox.

Factor number one: price elasticities. What’s that? Say, for example, that wheat production is very low this year. If there’s nothing consumers can really replace it with, the wheat that’s available becomes very valuable, and its price will likely go up significantly. That’s what economists call an inelastic demand. If, on the other hand, consumers could just shift to eating oats or corn instead, then that wheat would not be as critically valuable, and its price might not increase much at all. That’s an elastic demand.

Figure 1. The price is set where demand (D line) meets the supply line (S1 and S2 show two different production situations). If wheat production is low this year (S2 line, rather than the normal S1 line), prices will rise more if demand is inelastic (left panel – compare P2 to P1) than if demand is inelastic (right panel – compare P2 to P1). Figure courtesy of Ballav Aryal, Washington State University, modified with permission.

Price elasticity is a factor that growers have little control over. But if the crops that are impacted by drought (and so have lower production) also happen to have inelastic demands, then their prices might increase significantly when production is slow. Those increases in the price might more than make up for the decreased production. That is, total agricultural revenue could increase even if the amount produced decreases.

It’s also worth noting that price increases could also be responding to economic factors in other regions of the world producing the same crops or other substitute crops, or to policy shifts, or to consumer preferences. But the bottom line remains: if the price moves in the opposite direction to the amount produced and the demand of the crop is inelastic, it could compensate for the drought-driven low production, leading to high revenues even in drought years.

Factor number two: water allocation. In contrast to the price factor, water allocation may be a factor that growers can control, at least to some extent. This of course is focused on irrigated crops. If in any given year growers apply their available water to an array of different crops, when their water availability is curtailed due to drought they will make decisions on what crops to favor with the water they do have. If they are able to direct their water to those crops of highest value, then their revenue will suffer less (maybe much less) than if they can’t and irrigation water to all of their crops is reduced about equally. Water leasing or otherwise trading water among producers—or even irrigation districts—can have the same effect on the overall collective value of a region’s production in a drought year (see the 2016 Columbia River Forecast for more on this). This factor also argues for a diversity of crops across the region, as having a variety of crops acts as a hedge against drought risk.

So let’s come back to Washington and the 2015 drought. Aryal’s presentation was based on research across nine western states (though it did not include Colorado or California). To really test how important each of these two factors were in Washington in 2015—that is, do they explain Capital Press’s puzzle?—you’d need comprehensive data on the 300-plus crops grown in Washington State, plus specifics on growers’ water allocation decisions. Such data are very hard to come by. However, if such data could be collected and analyzed, we could explore to what extent demand elasticities (which, remember, are outside growers’ control) and water allocation decisions (somewhat within growers’ control) load the dice towards revenues not diving hand in hand with decreased production due to drought. If the strength of the ties between drought-driven decreases in production and in overall revenue is mostly within our control—as a grower, an irrigation district, or as policy makers in the state—we would be able to better prepare for what future climate will bring: more frequent droughts. Of course, that also means that the onus would then be on us to actually prepare. But that’s still the best-case scenario, don’t you think?


Hall, S.A., J.C. Adam, M. Barik, J. Yoder, M.P. Brady, D. Haller, M.E. Barber, C.E. Kruger, G.G. Yorgey, M. Downes, C.O. Stockle, B. Aryal, T. Carlson, G. Damiano, S. Dhungel, C. Einberger, K. Hamel-Reiken, M. Liu, K. Malek, S. McClure, R. Nelson, M. O’Brien, J. Padowski, K. Rajagopalan, Z. Rakib, B. Rushi, W. Valdez. 2016. 2016 Washington State Legislative Report. Columbia River Basin Long-Term Water Supply and Demand Forecast. Publication No. 16-12-001. Washington Department of Ecology, Olympia, WA. 216 pp. Available online at:


This article is also posted on the CSANR Perspectives on Sustainability blog.


NW Climate Conference call for abstracts now open!

Tacoma Convention Center, Photo by

Call for Abstracts now open!

The Eighth Annual Northwest Climate Conference
Working Together to Build a Resilient Northwest

October 10-11, 2017
Tacoma Convention Center | Tacoma, WA

We are pleased to announce the call for abstracts for the 8th Annual Northwest Climate Conference – Working Together to Build a Resilient Northwest. We invite you and your colleagues to submit abstracts for special sessions, oral presentations, and posters. The due date for abstracts is Monday, June 12, 2017. Continue reading

Exploring Climate Change Adaptation Strategies for Agriculture in the Northwest

By Liz Allen

Workshop participants included government agency staff, agriculture industry representatives, and annual and perennial crop producers. Photo Credit: Red Hills Vineyard in the Willamette Valley, Oregon. Photo by Stuart Seeger, CC BY 2.0.

One of the best things about my work is that it connects me with researchers from a wide range of disciplinary backgrounds who are committed to conducting science that informs natural resource management decisions. I’ve been fortunate to work with WSU researchers studying regional climate change impacts for nearly 6 years now, and over that time many of my academic colleagues have developed new skills related to communicating their research to diverse audiences. I’ve also witnessed scientists’ growing interest in learning from stakeholders who make decisions about managing agricultural and natural resources “out there in the real world”. Continue reading

Adapting to a Changing Climate while Conserving Water and Growing Tastier Tomatoes

By Amy Garrett

Dry farmed crops grown by the Dry Farming Collaborative. Photos by Amy Garrett.

The Dry Farming Collaborative (DFC) brings together farmers interested in pursuing alternatives to irrigated agriculture for a variety of specialty crops including: tomatoes, potatoes, winter squash, zucchini, melons, dry beans, and corn.  Growers throughout western Oregon, Washington, and northern California, increasingly affected by climate change, farm lands without water rights, or with limited water availability. Some have water rights but are interested in conserving resources (time, energy, water, etc.) and producing tastier (and sometimes longer storing) produce for their markets . Continue reading

Spring is Coming! Reflections on Growing the AgClimate Network

By: Brooke Saari

“No matter how long the winter, spring is sure to follow” ~ Proverb from Guinea

Spring in the Pacific Northwest. Top Left: Skagit Valley Tulips, courtesy of Brooke Saari; Top Right: Apple Tree in bloom, courtesy Washington State University; Bottom Left: Cherry Orchard in The Dalles, courtesy of Oregon State University and Jan Sonnenmair Photography, Flickr CC 2.0; Bottom Right: Spring Daffodils, courtesy Brent M., Flickr CC 2.0.

Winter is in its final stages and spring is knocking on our door. As a Florida native living in Washington, I for one am ready for some sunshine, flowers and warmth! While I dream of that glorious spring, I’d like to reflect on what an impressive year of growth the Agriculture Climate Network experienced in 2016, and what we are shooting for over the next year. Continue reading

Summarizing Scientific Knowledge about Agriculture and Climate Change in the Northwest U.S. and Plotting a Roadmap for the Future

By Liz Allen

This white paper integrates stakeholders¹ recommendations with a review of current scientific information about climate change and agriculture in the Northwest U.S.
Image credits, clockwise from top left: Lower Lake Ranch Road Sunset, by Michael McCullough; Marysville Wind Turbines, by Amit Patel; Columbia Gorge Apple Orchard, by Oregon Department of Agriculture; Palouse Wheat Field, by Matt Olson. All Creative Commons by NC 2.0.

Back in March of 2016, a group of agriculture sector stakeholders– including researchers, policy makers and producers– met in Tri-Cities, Washington, for the Agriculture in a Changing Climate Workshop. The three-day workshop was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Northwest Climate Hub and National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Facilitators from the William D. Ruckelshaus Center were instrumental in supporting generative dialogue. Workshop participants worked together to define priorities for the future research and extension efforts focused on climate change mitigation and adaptation in the Northwest.

A newly released white paper synthesizes high-priority recommendations that were articulated by participants at the workshop. Continue reading

Water for the Long Haul

By: Joye Redfield-Wilder
Repost from ECOconnect

2016 forecast will guide water management in Columbia River Basin
Ecology’s Office of Columbia River (OCR) has a mission to “aggressively pursue development of water supplies to benefit both instream and out of stream uses.”  Since 2006, the program has been building water resiliency in Eastern Washington, especially in response to changing climate and drought.
The 2016 Water Supply and Demand Forecast for the Columbia River Basin tells a story of Washington’s water future and is helping water managers to anticipate likely water needs across the Columbia River Basin over the next 20 years (2035). Continue reading

Flex Cropping – Storing More Carbon Under Challenging Environmental Conditions

Residues from more frequent cropping feed the soil by adding organic matter. Grower Bill Jepsen pictured. Photo: S. Kantor.

By Georgine Yorgey

Organic matter – the organic component of soil – is key to soil health. Organic matter serves as a reservoir of nutrients for crops, provides soil aggregation, increases nutrient exchange, retains moisture, reduces compaction, reduces surface crusting, and increases water infiltration into the soil. And organic matter is closely related to soil organic carbon, the carbon stored in organic matter. Soils with high levels of organic matter have higher levels of carbon, and consequently also benefit the climate by “sequestering” carbon that otherwise would be in the atmosphere.

Continue reading

Request for Papers: Special Issue on Climate, Agriculture and Food Systems

Editors at the journal Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems are welcoming submissions for a special issue on Climate, Agriculture and Food Systems. They are interested in multidisciplinary research that examines agrifood system responses to both projected and experienced climate changes. Editors are interested in all relevant submissions and request a 500 word (maximum) abstract of your planned contribution to the issue editors by February 15th, 2017.

Please contact Gabrielle Roesch-McNally (USDA Climate Hubs, or click call for abstracts for more information.



High Residue Farming Workshop for Irrigated Producers

By Georgine Yorgey

WSU Extension is hosting an upcoming workshop on the basics of High Residue Farming on November 30, 2016, 9:30-3:30 in Moses Lake. Details for those interested in attending are available here (lunch included if you pre-register by 11/22).

Onion planting into strip tilled rows, wheat cover crop. Photo by Darrell Kilgore.

Onion planting into strip tilled rows, wheat cover crop. Photo by Darrell Kilgore.

High residue farming is a term that covers a number of different specific farming practices, including strip-till and direct seeding. In all these systems, the amount of tillage is reduced in order to maintain crop residues on the soil surface. High residue farming provides a number of benefits, but two key ones include reducing wind erosion (and the need to replant sand-blasted crops) and reducing the amount of time and equipment needed to plant. It can also improve soil health, increase the amount of carbon stored in the soil, and in some cases increase the potential for double-cropping.

Intrigued and want to learn more? You can hear about strip tillage from a farmer who has used it for many years in this video. And you can see the operations he uses for strip tillage in onions here. Continue reading