‘A quiet crisis’: The rise of acidic soil in Washington

Winter wheat affected by acidic soil. Photo: Carol McFarland/WSU.
Winter wheat affected by acidic soil.  Photo: Carol McFarland/WSU.

DAYTON, Wash. – Gary Wegner first noticed the problem in 1991, when a field on his family’s farm west of Spokane produced one-fourth the usual amount of wheat. Lab tests revealed a surprising result: the soil had become acidic.

Wheat farmers are now seeing this problem across the inland Pacific Northwest. The culprit, as far as anyone can tell, is the abundant use of synthetic nitrogen to increase crop yields, a practice that has otherwise revolutionized production over the past half century.

“We’re riding the edge of a crisis,” says Paul Carter, an agronomist and the director of Washington State University Extension in Columbia County. “We can pretty well nail it down to the addition of nitrogen to our soils for crops. In 1940 or 1950, nitrogen was applied at five pounds per acre. Now, in some areas, we’re up to 100 or more pounds per acre.”

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