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Grant Enables Study of Effects of Biofuels Production on Soils

Posted by struscott | August 10, 2007

The Washington State University Center for Precision Agricultural Systems has received a three-year $395,000 grant from the Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture to study how biofuel crop production affects soil conditions.

WSU Center for Precision Agriculture director Fran Pierce standing in a test plot of corn.
WSU Center for Precision Agriculture director Fran Pierce standing in a test plot of corn.

“Corn acreage is expected to increase 15 percent by 2008, largely due to corn prices driven by corn ethanol demand that already exceed any previous record price,” said Francis J. Pierce, director of the center. “No one knows how the mass production and removal of biofuel crops will affect the soil and production of these crops.

Over the next three years, WSU researchers will work with USDA Agricultural Research Service scientists at Prosser, WA, and Pendelton, Ore., to study how changes in crop production practices associated with growing crops for energy production will impact soil quality and ecosystem health.

“The Columbia Basin is the perfect environment for these studies because the semi-arid climate creates optimal conditions to achieve maximum crop yields,” Pierce said. “By controlling inputs of water and nutrients, a broad range of conditions can be created in soil with naturally low levels of organic matter and nutrients.

“These conditions will allow us to measure carbon and nutrient changes in diverse biomass crop production systems at scales of productivity not possible in previous studies.”

The research is expected to help farmers make adjustments in how they grow crops for energy production and help policy makers adjust national energy policies to provide for maximum production while preserving the natural resource base.