Science in Action to Improve the Sustainability of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Food Systems
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June 26, 2016
Dan Sullivan, OSU soil scientist, caught my attention during his presentation at the 2014 Building Soils for Better Crops workshop. Speaking about organic amendments and how to use them for both building soils and for nutrient supply to crops, Sullivan suggested that low nutrient organic amendments, like compost or composted manures, be used in combination with synthetic nitrogen fertilizers. This combo, he said, has benefits over the use of either by itself.
The decomposition that produces compost reduces its nutrient content and stabilizes it. Because it has decomposed some, more of it will end up as soil organic matter than with fresh organic materials. When compost is applied to a field, it will continue to decompose slowly – faster as the soil warms up – releasing a slow stream of nitrogen into the soil solution. If the compost is being used as a nitrogen source, this flow of nitrogen often cannot keep up with crop demand. One option is to use organic materials with higher amounts of available nitrogen, but these are very expensive; I found a liquid hydrolyzed fish product that could be applied through irrigation water, but it cost $17.76 per pound of nitrogen, over 20 times the price of synthetic fertilizer nitrogen. At this price, these materials make economic sense only for very high value organic crops. This is most likely why organic wheat, a lower value crop than organic vegetables or fruit, produces less grain with lower protein content than wheat produced with synthetic nitrogen fertilizers (Seufert et al., 2012).
June 13, 2016
Water is the life-blood of agriculture. Without an adequate supply of water we cannot produce, process, or prepare food. You’ve heard the catch-phrase “No Farms, No Food”? The same could be said for water: “No Water, No Food”.
Actually, water is even more important than that. It is the life-blood of civilization. There was a study published a couple of years ago that evaluated the importance of water (and grain) as it related to the development of the Roman Empire (Dermody et.al. 2014). The conclusion of this study is that Rome ultimately was undone by the fact that it had to expand its empire too far to secure sufficient water resources to feed itself. [Someday I’ll write a post about this study – it’s an open access journal so anyone with a computer can read it.]
May 10, 2016
“Agriculture” in the Pacific Northwest encompasses a lot—dryland and irrigated systems, beef and dairy production, grains and other field crops, vegetables, fruit trees, pastures, other perennial crops, commodity and specialty markets, from local to global—so there’s no getting away from the fact that talking about climate change and agriculture gets complicated, really fast. This point came across to me very strongly at the Agriculture in a Changing Climate workshop in Kennewick in March, when invited industry representatives shared their perspectives on climate change and agriculture during a panel discussion.
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