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Gleaning Green Data, Soil Perenniation, Eggert Family Farm

Posted by | October 18, 2012

New WSU Program Tackles Challenge of Developing Science-based Tools to Measure Sustainability in Ag and Food Systems

Charles Benbrook, WSU research professor and CSANR faculty member, is leading a program to develop tools to measure sustainability.
Charles Benbrook, WSU research professor and CSANR faculty member, is leading a program to develop tools to measure sustainability.

A new WSU program has been charged with developing science-based tools to measure the sustainability of food production systems. The program, called “Measure to Manage: Food and Farm Diagnostics for Sustainability and Health,” or M2M, just received a three- year, $240,000 grant from the Clif Bar Family Foundation.

M2M will develop new, and refine existing, science-based tools to quantify and compare the nutritional quality of food, agricultural and food production safety parameters, and agriculture’s environmental impact. Through web-based and other open-access systems, the tools will be made publicly available, especially to decision makers and their advisors, including food-system professionals, researchers, and policymakers.

“Our new program will strive to improve the return on time and resources invested across the agricultural sector in complying with a growing array of standards and certification programs by measuring performance attributes with clear links to outcomes that improve people’s lives and promote environmental quality,” said Charles Benbrook, M2M program leader and WSU research professor. Resolving conflicts between different sets of standards and certification requirements is a core M2M goal.

Multiple efforts are under way across the agricultural sector and food industry to develop and adopt sustainable farming systems that produce food with benefits like more nutrients and less risky pesticide residues. New standard-setting and certification programs for food quality and safety are emerging at state and national levels and from several international organizations. M2M will address what makes one farming system more or less sustainable than another and how farmers, food companies, and third-party certifiers can quantify improvements in food nutritional quality and safety.

The grant from the Clif Bar Family Foundation will accelerate M2M’s development and provide public access to program results and analytical tools via the M2M website (http://bit.ly/wsu-m2m).

“Our partnership with Washington State University couldn’t be more timely,” said Kit Crawford, president of Clif Bar Family Foundation. “Agriculture has a huge impact on the health of people and the planet. Now more than ever, we need to back the rigorous, scientific study of organic, sustainable agriculture and its many benefits.”

“M2M will serve as a catalyst for enhancing the sophistication of measurement methods within multidisciplinary and multi-institutional teams conducting research on a wide variety of agricultural and food systems,” said Chad Kruger, director of WSU’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources, the institutional home of M2M. Sharper quantification of baseline levels of performance at the beginning of projects, along with better ways to track the impacts of ongoing work, will help produce more rigorous analysis of research outcomes.

Several companies striving to enhance product quality, reduce their environmental footprint and document progress toward sustainability have provided startup capital for the program. These include United Natural Foods, Inc. (UNFI) and the UNFI Foundation, Organic Valley/CROPP Cooperative, Whole Foods, and Stonyfield, Inc. Additionally, a $25,000 grant from Annie’s Inc. will support work to calculate the embedded environmental and food safety attributes from organic ingredients.

“All of the companies providing core support for M2M recognize the need for more careful research on the impacts of different farming methods and technologies, from organic farming to genetic engineering,” said Michael Funk, chairman and co-founder of UNFI. “Our hope is the M2M program will draw upon the tremendous scientific talent across WSU in creating next-generation, open-access measurement tools to guide innovation and track progress along food value chains.”

Visit the M2M website at http://bit.ly/wsu-m2m for more information on goals, areas of research, and activities. To understand better why agriculture needs tools for measuring sustainability, read sustainability expert David Granatstein’s “Towards a Sustainability Index for Agriculture” at http://bit.ly/T3fh23.

Charles Benbrook recently published a paper on the use of pesticides in GMO soy beans, cotton, and corn. In a post on the Pertspectives on Sustainability blog, he writes, “Without doubt, GE crop technology has profoundly changed corn, cotton, and soybean pest management, but the unintended impact on pesticide use is a harsh reminder that farmers should not put all their eggs in one pest control basket.” You can read a summary of Benbrook’s research results at http://bit.ly/PL8q82, where you’ll also find links to the paper’s key findings and the paper itself.

–Brian Clark

WSU Researchers Propose Way to Save Africa’s Beleaguered Soils

Rhoda Mang’yana of Malawi is one of thousands of African farmers improving their depleted soil by growing trees and annual crops that stay in the ground two years or more. Here she grows maize near ‘fertilizer trees’ to improve her farm’s crop yield and soil fertility. Photo ©Jim Richardson
Rhoda Mang’yana of Malawi is one of thousands of African farmers improving their depleted soil by growing trees and annual crops that stay in the ground two years or more. Here she grows maize near ‘fertilizer trees’ to improve her farm’s crop yield and soil fertility. Photo ©Jim Richardson

A WSU researcher and two WSU graduates make a case in the journal Nature for a new type of agriculture that could restore the beleaguered soils of Africa and help the continent feed itself in the coming decades.

Their farming system, which they call “perenniation,” mixes food crops with trees and perennial plants. Thousands of farmers are already trying variations of perenniation, which reduces the need for artificial inputs while improving soil and, in some cases, dramatically increasing yields. One woman quadrupled her corn crop, letting her raise pigs and goats and sell surplus grain for essentials and her grandchildren’s school fees. WSU soil scientist John Reganold wrote the article with Jerry Glover (’97 BS Soil Science, ’98 BA Philosophy, ’01 PhD Soil Science) of the USAID Bureau for Food Security and Cindy Cox (’00 MS Plant Pathology/Phytopathology) of the International Food Policy Research Institute. The article, “Plant perennials to save Africa’s soils,” appeared in the Sept. 20 issue of Nature.

The authors argue that perenniation offers a powerful option for a growing population that struggles to eat. This is especially applicable in sub-Saharan Africa, where one-fourth of the world’s undernourished population lives on nutrient-poor soils that produce one-tenth the yields of crops in the U.S. Midwest. Farmers often make these lands worse by adding conventional mineral fertilizers without organic inputs.

“Of the various factors needing urgent attention to increase agricultural productivity, scientists from the region have identified soil quality as a top priority,” the researchers write. “We believe that perenniation should be used much more widely to help farmers meet the challenge of improving soils while increasing food production.”

Several efforts to increase perenniation are already underway, including perennial grain research at WSU and millions of plantings across sub-Saharan Africa in the Trees for Food Security project. But the researchers argue for elevating perenniation research to the levels of support given mineral fertilizers and seed development.

The cost could run to tens of millions of dollars. “Yet such numbers pale in comparison to the losses of nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium from sub-Saharan farm fields each year,” the researchers explain. Such losses, they add, are the equivalent of billions of dollars of fertilizer.

–Eric Sorensen

Dedicated to the Future: Eggert Family Farm Breaks Ground on WSU Pullman Campus

The Eggert Family break ground on the new organic teaching farm on the WSU Pullman campus. Photo: Brian Clark, WSU MNEC.
The Eggert Family break ground on the new organic teaching farm on the WSU Pullman campus. Photo: Brian Clark, WSU MNEC.

WSU officials and friends of organic agriculture dedicated the new Eggert Family Organic Farm with a special ceremony on this past Saturday, Oct. 13, at the site of the new farm on the east edge of the Pullman campus off Airport Road.
The event featured speakers including WSU President Elson S. Floyd and Dan Bernardo, vice president for agriculture and extension. The entire Eggert clan was in attendance as well.

WSU officials in April announced a $5 million investment by alumni and natural foods pioneers Chuck and Louanna Eggert and their family to expand the WSU Organic Farm from four acres to nearly 30 acres. The gift has grown since then. The farm expansion provides WSU with the largest organic teaching farm on a university campus in the United States.

The couple, who met while attending WSU, have grown Pacific Natural Foods from a small soymilk production company to a global leader in natural food development, sustainable and organic farming, and land stewardship that supports farmers and ranchers.

Founded in 1987 in Tualatin, Oregon, Pacific Natural Foods offers a wide variety of all natural and organic food and beverages including soups, broths, non-dairy beverages, and pot pies. The company’s products are sold throughout the United States and Canada in mainstream grocery and natural food stores.

“This is a game changer for the program,” said John Reganold, WSU Regents Professor of Soil Science and Agroecology who leads the university’s organic agriculture major. “This investment by the Eggert family greatly expands the opportunities provided by the Organic Farm and major for students at Washington State University.”

Tilth Producers of Washington 38th Annual Conference

“Growing Forward: Holistic Management of Organic Farms,” Nov. 9 – 11

Come on down to Port Townsend for the Tilth Producers annual conference at Fort Worden State Park on the Olympic Peninsula. More than 600 farmers, researchers, advocates and organic industry representatives will convene for three days of educational and networking events focused on organic and sustainable agriculture in Washington.

Friday features a one-day WSU Symposium, Seeding the Future: Ensuring Resiliency in Our Plant Genetic Resources, focused on germplasm issues and management. Also on Friday is a hands-on Farm Mechanics Workshop with expert mechanics Grant Gibbs and Albert Roberts.

Keynote speaker Allan Savory will provide inspiration and describe the Holistic Management decision-making framework in his plenary, Small Farmers Leading the World through New Approaches to Agriculture.

Tilth Producers and WSU have a great line up of expert growers, researchers, and educators sharing their expertise on organic farm practices and issues, plus a Beginning Farmer Series planned in conjunction with Washington Young Farmers Coalition.

Social events include a welcome reception and cider tasting, an intergenerational trivia mixer, Saturday evening films, a square dance with The Tallboys, a wine and cheese tasting and, of course, delicious organic meals.

Get registered and check out the agenda by visiting http://bit.ly/Wa6coC.

WSBA Beekeeping Courses Start in November, Repeat in January, February

Learn beekeeping from masters. Photo: Kate Halstead/WSU Extension.
Learn beekeeping from masters. Photo: Kate Halstead/WSU Extension.

To help rebuild, maintain, and expand the resource of local pollinators and honey producers, the Washington State Beekeepers Association, Washington State University Snohomish County Extension, and Beez Neez Apiary Supply team up each year to sponsor three sessions of the popular apprentice level course in the Master Beekeeper Program. The five-week course provides a thorough introduction to beekeeping for novice beekeepers as well as a comprehensive refresher course for experienced apiculturists.

The first session starts Monday evenings, November 5 through December 10 from 6:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. in McCollum Park at WSU Snohomish County Extension’s Cougar Auditorium, 600 128th ST SE, Everett. The five-week course repeats starting Monday, January 7 and again on February 25.

Designed to build basic beekeeping skills, topics covered include bee biology, equipment, seasonal management, identification and management of pests and diseases, and honey harvest. The overall focus is on the unique challenges and benefits to beekeeping in western Washington.

A workshop manual complements the lectures. Participants completing the five-week course and passing the optional Washington State Apprentice Beekeeper level exam (open book test) will receive a certificate towards the Journey and Master Beekeeper levels of training.

Each session will be taught by local beekeeping professionals, WSU Snohomish County Extension entomologist Dave Pehling, and Jim Tunnell, owner of Beez Neez Apiary Supply in Snohomish.

Class size is limited and always fills quickly. There are just a few seats left for the November series. The cost for the five-week course is $75 per person. Register online at http://bit.ly/SXvyzo for the fall event, or http://bit.ly/XaBpGc for the January series, and http://bit.ly/T3ct4R for the February series. Alternatively, download the registration form from http://bit.ly/SUIN86 and mail it with your check. For registration information, contact Karie Christensen at 425-357-6039 or e-mail christensen4@wsu.edu. For more information on the course, contact Dave Pehling, pehling@wsu.edu, 425-357-6019.