Category Archives: Sustainable Practices

Get out the Map! A Soil Health Roadmap for Washington

By Karen Hills, Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources, Washington State University

Two hands holding a handful of dark soil

Maintaining and improving soil health can result in benefits both on- and off-farm. Photo: Chad Kruger.

Soil has been called “the living skin of the Earth.” The effort to maintain the health of this “living skin” in Washington got a boost in 2021 when the State Legislature passed the Washington Soil Health Initiative with a $2.1 million annual allocation (half of which goes to Washington State University). Washington State is just one of many states in the U.S. where interest in soil health has resulted in initiatives focused on maintaining soil health on working lands, but, notably, no other state’s soil health initiative is investing as much into research as Washington’s. Soil health is defined by the USDA NRCS as “…the continued capacity of soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals, and humans.” Soil health is often described as a “win-win” with positive outcomes both on-farm and off-farm. For example, on-farm benefits include improved soil tilth, nutrient cycling, water holding capacity, and disease suppression. Off-farm benefits include reduced soil erosion and improved water quality, as well as reducing the impact on our climate, most directly through carbon sequestration.

The win-win nature of soil health allowed the Washington Soil Health Initiative to gain support from commodity groups in Washington as well as environmental organizations. Continue reading

Would You Lease Your Water Rights? The Devil Is in the Details

By Nicole Bell, Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources, Washington State University

 

Center pivot irrigation system in a bare field with crop starting to emerge

Irrigation water supply in eastern Washington relies on snowmelt, which is expected to change as temperatures warm. Photo: Flickr user brewbooks under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Climate change is expected to alter both the availability and demand for water. In the western United States, roughly 80% of surface water is allocated to agricultural uses, and the pressure to find more efficient ways to manage water is on, especially in drought years. Eastern Washington is no exception: the mountains in this region are relatively low in elevation, meaning that as the region warms, temperatures will cross that 32°F threshold more frequently, more precipitation will fall as rain rather than as snow, and snowmelt will occur earlier. Because the Pacific Northwest relies on snowpack for much of its summer water supply, this could create challenges for managing water. While previous articles have focused on the likely timing and availability of water in the Columbia River Basin, in this article I focus on water markets, or the transfer or leasing of water and water rights from one user to another. These markets provide a tool that could potentially help reallocate water to where it is critically needed during times of shortage. Continue reading

Here’s the Dirt on Carbon Sequestration Potential in Cropland Soils

By Nicole Bell, Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources, Washington State University

Aerial view of green and dry center pivot circles with the Columbia River in the background

Soils with carbon sequestration potential can include irrigated croplands in the Columbia River Basin. Photo: Doug Wilson/USDA ARS

In this era with record-setting temperatures multiple years in a row, scientists are looking for methods to sequester carbon to slow the process of climate change. Agriculture plays a key role in not just the global economy, but also the global carbon cycle: cropland soils have the potential to be either sinks or sources of greenhouse gases, notably carbon dioxide. The conversion of native ecosystems to cropland agriculture has resulted in enormous carbon losses, estimated to be between 20-70% of the original carbon stored in native soils in the US. The Pacific Northwest is an agricultural powerhouse: in 2017, Washington, Idaho, and Oregon produced $22 billion in agricultural production on over 42 million acres. That’s a lot of soil. I recently read a white paper by Georgine Yorgey and colleagues at Washington State University titled “Carbon sequestration potential in cropland soils in the inland Pacific Northwest: Knowledge and gaps,” that summarizes research on carbon sequestration in the inland Northwest. It turns out that it is not a one-size-fits-all answer: the potential of certain croplands to either release or sequester carbon depends on climate, the cropping system, the soil type, and other factors. Fortunately, though, some soils do have great carbon sequestration potential. Continue reading

Climate Friendly Farming Policy Considerations for the Inland Pacific Northwest

By Doug Finkelnburg, Area Extension Educator – Dryland Cropping Systems, University of Idaho Extension

Quote: America’s farmers, ranchers, and forest landowners have an important role to play in combating the climate crisis and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, by sequestering carbon in soils, grasses, trees, and other vegetation and sourcing sustainable bioproducts and fuels.”  - President Biden’s Executive Order on  Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad

https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/presidential-actions/2021/01/27/executive-order-on-tackling-the-climate-crisis-at-home-and-abroad/

Efforts are underway at the federal level to combat climate change on the agriculture front. USDA has just finished a “listening period” to help develop and refine actions they may implement to accomplish this. Just what those actions may be and what effects they may have on the day-to-day operation of Pacific Northwest farmers is an understandable cause of some uncertainty and trepidation.

Farmer and NRCS soil conservationist looking at a shovelful of soil in a harvested wheat field with standing residue

No-till farming near The Dalles, Oregon, a practice to improve soil health to increase water infiltration and retention, that also sequesters carbon. Photo: NRCS/Ron Nichols under CC BY-ND 2.0.

Recently I spoke with a farmers’ coop manager who asked what programs or policies are likely to be put into effect and whether long time direct-seeders would stand to benefit or lose out. Our discussion (summarized and edited) highlights a few important questions: “If the greatest gains in carbon sequestration are going to be made in the most organic matter-depleted fields, how will those who have already stockpiled organic mater to near a maximum point benefit?” and, “Will there need to be a system of soil carbon auditing or compliance enforcement?” and the inevitable big one, “Inland Pacific Northwest agriculture is very different from Midwest agriculture, will these new policies unfairly benefit some farmers over others?” Continue reading

How Do Grocery and Meal Kit Deliveries Impact the Carbon Footprint of Our Food?

By Nicole Bell, Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources, Washington State University

This article is part of a series highlighting work from the Fruit & Vegetable Supply Chains: Climate Adaptation & Mitigation Opportunities project, a collaborative research study co-led by investigators at the University of Florida and the Agriculture & Food Systems Institute. Other collaborators include researchers at the University of Arkansas, University of Illinois, the International Food Policy Research Institute, the World Agricultural Economic and Environmental Services, and Washington State University. This project seeks to identify and test climate adaptation and mitigation strategies in fruit and vegetable supply chains.

 

Open box showing small packets of wrapped foods, with the meal kit label

HelloFresh home delivery meal services individually package ingredients for a 2-4 serving meal. Photo: Flickr user wuestenigel under CC BY 2.0.

I explored opportunities to reduce environmental impact related to food preparation and food waste in previous AgClimate.net articles. However, transportation in the food supply chain is a significant contributor to carbon emissions: all the transportation and miles in between the farm and your plate are part of the journey of fruits, vegetables, and all of your favorite foods. Those food miles and methods of transportation look different today than they did several decades ago. The “last mile” that your food travels through before it lands at your door, otherwise known as the stage from the processor or retailer to the consumer’s hands, is changing too, and it has the potential to be a great opportunity for greenhouse gas emissions reduction. Americans are spending 100 billion dollars a year on online groceries alone. The home delivery meal kit industry is valued at 1.5 billion dollars in the United States and is experiencing a growth rate of 25 percent annually (Heard et al.). While 23 percent of Americans were buying their groceries online in 2016, projections indicate that up to 70 percent of consumers will make the switch by 2024, partially due to the rise in home deliveries throughout the COVID-19 pandemic (Food Marketing Institute). What do all of these at-home deliveries mean for the environment? How are our decisions on the manner in which our food arrives at our dinner table impacting the so-called “last mile” emissions? Continue reading

Waste a Lot, Warm a Lot – Reducing Food Waste is Part of Climate-Friendly Eating

By Nicole Bell, Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources, Washington State University

This article is part of a series, Climate Friendly Fruit & Veggies, highlighting work from the Fruit & Vegetable Supply Chains: Climate Adaptation & Mitigation Opportunities project, a collaborative research study co-led by investigators at the University of Florida and the Agriculture & Food Systems Institute. Other collaborating institutions include researchers at the University of Arkansas, University of Illinois, the International Food Policy Research Institute, the World Agricultural Economic and Environmental Services, and Washington State University. This project seeks to identify and test climate adaptation and mitigation strategies in fruit and vegetable supply chains.

Potatoes cut to make fries, with a pile of "chips" that don't lend themselves to perfect fries, and can contribute to waste

The food waste occurring close to a consumer’s plate plays an important role in the overall environmental footprint of a given product, such as fresh market potatoes. Photo: Ernesto Andrade under CC BY-ND 2.0.

While many scientists, producers, and consumers recognize the importance of quantifying the carbon footprint of agriculture, most efforts focus on on-farm activities. The journey food takes before it lands on a consumer’s plate is complex and requires looking beyond the farm gates: as it turns out, the consumer’s plate plays an important role in the overall environmental footprint of a given product. In a recent article, we explored insights related to preparation of French fries from a study led by Ranjan Parajuli on the relative impact of different parts of the supply chain (on-farm, processor, retail, and consumer) for fresh and processed potato and tomato products. Here, we examine another aspect of supply chain impacts of potato and tomato products: food waste. The results indicate that waste contributes significantly to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.  Continue reading

How Can New Remote Sensing Technologies Help Evaluate the Effectiveness of Resource Conservation Measures?

By Amanda Stahl and Alexander Fremier, Washington State University

Grassy area with GPS equipment on a tripod in the foreground and trees along a riparian corridor in the background.

Conserving riparian areas means a small footprint can contribute to protecting a county’s Critical Areas and mitigate the effects of climate change. Photo: Amanda Stahl.

Washington State is taking steps to foster environmental stewardship in agriculture using an alternative approach to direct regulatory oversight. Twenty-seven counties in Washington have opted into the Voluntary Stewardship Program (VSP), which requires them to self-assess (with state oversight) whether voluntary management actions are maintaining or enhancing Critical Areas. Critical Areas include wetlands, fish and wildlife habitat conservation areas, critical aquifer recharge areas, frequently flooded areas, and geologically hazardous areas. Most counties cite riparian conservation measures as a strategy to maintain or enhance at least one type of Critical Area. Riparian conservation measures, like planting or allowing natural vegetation to grow, can also address the impacts of climate change, providing shade to cool water in the stream, improving habitat for species stressed by climate change, and possibly helping moderate extremes in moisture availability year-round. Conserving small land areas can thus have a large impact for mitigating the effects of climate change. The question is, how can we quickly determine if these measures are working, and meeting the goals of the VSP? Continue reading

Pathways to Progress in Tackling Stormwater Runoff in Near-Urban Agricultural Areas

By Kevin Hyde, Puget Sound Partnership

Culvert draining into a pool of water with oily slick on the surface

Stormwater pollution impacts many of the things Puget Sound residents hold dear. Photo: Washington State Department of Ecology.

Stormwater runoff, particularly from roadways, is one of the leading sources of water pollution in Puget Sound. Stormwater pollution impacts people and ecosystems in different ways. Many of the things Puget Sound residents hold dear, like swimming along rivers and beaches, harvesting and eating shellfish, and fishing for salmon, are directly affected by stormwater pollution. The Puget Sound Partnership works with many groups to tackle this complex problem, and polluted stormwater runoff is a focus of the Toxics in Fish Implementation Strategy, a recovery plan that aims to reduce the levels and impacts of contaminants on Puget Sound aquatic life.

Jordan Jobe, with Washington State University Extension, points out in a recent article that stormwater pollution also has implications for local food systems and farmers. She highlights the need to better understand the impact of stormwater runoff on agricultural viability in near-urban agricultural areas, where it may impact soil health, or contaminate crops. Continue reading

Forest infrastructure: Preparing for Future Needs

By Chris Schnepf

Precipitation has a large influence on forests and how they function. Forests, and how they are managed or disturbed, also have huge effects on streams that flow from them and all related stream benefits, from fisheries to irrigated agriculture.

Truck driving through a muddy drivable dip

Drivable dips are an excellent low-maintenance approach to quickly draining runoff from forest roads. Photo: C. Schnepf.

Because high water quality (low temperatures, low amounts of sediment) is such an important value of forest streams, extra care is taken in forest management to maintain that quality. People often presume that timber harvesting in and of itself is the greatest threat to water quality, mentally envisioning sediments eroding from harvested slopes. But generally, you do not get much erosion from the soil surface of a harvested area, unless the soils are intrinsically prone to slumping (those soils may slump regardless of harvesting). Even after a harvest, the tree root systems remain, and soils are further bound to the site by understory vegetation and high levels of organic matter.

The biggest threat to water quality is less the harvested surface than it is the surface of roads and skid trails used to access that timber. Continue reading

Compost Emissions – More Than Just a Matter of Smell

By Karen Hills

This is part of a series highlighting work by Washington State University (WSU) researchers through the Waste to Fuels Technology Partnership between the Department of Ecology and WSU during the 2017-2019 biennium. This partnership advances targeted applied research and extension on emerging technologies for managing residual organic matter.

Large compost pile, with facility in the background

Commercial compost facilities divert organic waste from landfills and create a beneficial soil amendment. Photo: Doug Collins.

Composting organic waste is, in many ways, a win-win scenario. It diverts waste from the landfill, while creating a valuable soil amendment. However, even composting is not without its share of environmental impacts. Large commercial composters know that emissions of smelly compounds can occur and cause unhappy neighbors. But little attention has been paid to less noticeable compounds which could have climate and air quality impacts. But how much is known about the emissions of these compounds from composting operations? Reading a recently published report by Tom Jobson and Neda Khosravi of WSU’s Laboratory for Atmospheric Research helped me to better grasp the state of the science on this question. Continue reading