Soil Microbes in Organic Farming Systems Are Under Researchers’ Microscope
One of the goals of organic agriculture is to improve soil quality over time by increasing the amount of organic matter in the soil. This is done by various means, including adding animal manure, leaving plant matter behind after vegetables and grains have been harvested, growing cover crops, or by adding compost. These materials are recycled by microorganisms that live in the soil, releasing from the organic matter the nutritional building blocks the next generation of plants need to grow and thrive. Those building blocks include nitrogen, carbon, phosphorous, and various micronutrients.
But as organic matter builds up in the soil, there is the potential for loss of those precious nutrients (particularly nitrogen) as they are released as gases from the soil or as they dissolve in water and are carried away by stormwater run off, as well as by other processes. For farmers, that loss of valuable nutrients affects their bottom line because those nutrients need to be replaced with costly inputs. For the environment, escaping nutrients could be a source of pollution in streams and other bodies of water. Even more ominously, those escaping nutrients could be greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change.
That’s why Washington State University scientists Ann-Marie Fortuna, Craig Cogger and Doug Collins are developing a series of experiments to determine the types and amounts of gases emitted by organic cropping systems. Research plots in Puyallup include a long-term organic farming experiment initiated in 2003. Because soil properties have been influenced by 9 years of differing organic practices, the researchers expect to see differences in gas exchange from the soils over the next three years. Together with their colleague Ron Turco at Purdue University, who is studying the same thing in plots transitioning to organic status, they will not only measure emissions but also develop a series of “best practices” that farmers can use to minimize nutrient loss from their soils.
“Long-term data sets are few and far between in organic agriculture but are very much needed,” said Fortuna, an assistant professor of soil science at WSU and the director of the project. Fortuna and her colleagues plan to measure the cycling of gases through the soil over several years because, as she pointed out, a single measurement is just a snap shot of the system at a given moment, and not an accurate inventory of its behavior over the year-long cycle of growth, decay and renewal.
“All systems are leaky,” Fortuna said. “Any time you are adding nutrients to a system and building them up, you need to be concerned about where the nutrients are going. But just because you have more organic inputs doesn’t mean you are creating more greenhouse gases. There is probably a difference in the way the gases cycle, but you do need to have proper cropping and management systems in place to keep nutrients from escaping and becoming pollutants or contributors to greenhouse emissions.”
Fortuna said that while a great deal is known about crop production and nitrogen fertilizers, knowledge of the way soil microorganisms regulate the cycling of nutrients is limited. “We need to learn how agronomic management practices alter the microbiology controlling these reactions.”
“We are going to work out a set of practices that give growers a way to manage inputs that give plants the nutrition they need while not creating pollution,” said Craig Cogger, a soil scientist and Extension specialist based at WSU’s Research and Extension Center in Puyallup. “To that end, we are comparing how different organic farming systems with a history of different amendments and tillage frequency affect releases of carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide, two major greenhouse gases. We know that both tillage and type of amendment affect the soil ecosystem, but we now want to know how the microbes in these different ecosystems affect the release of greenhouse gases from the soil.”
Fortuna said that the direct impact of their research would be a set of management practices for farmers, as well as information about the availability of nutrients in soils. Soil is a complex, living system, so its fertility ebbs and flows with the rise and fall of temperature, the availability of moisture, and other factors. The team’s research has an additional potential bonus in that they may be able to quantify a way to tell growers what their carbon footprint is, which growers could use in marketing.
“This research will improve our understanding of how carbon and nitrogen cycle between land, air and water in vegetable and row crop farming systems in the Pacific Northwest and Midwest,” Fortuna said. The team plans on communicating their research results to growers via a video on climate change and soil microbiology.
Photos courtesy Ann-Marie Fortuna, Craig Cogger, and Doug Collins/Washington State University
Irrigation Info Goes Digital
Water management is a key issue for all agricultural producers, said Andy McGuire, a WSU Extension educator based in Grant County. Wise use of this precious resource not only improves producers’ economic bottom lines, but also reduces dust in cities and the loss of valuable soil.
That’s why a team of WSU Extension experts launched the Irrigated Agriculture Information Service. The new digital information emails alerts and other customized information to subscribers based on their specified topics of interest. Subscribers can now choose from more than 35 topic areas ranging from apples to cattle production and from drip irrigation to wine grape growing. Once subscribers create an account and choose their topic preferences, they can log back in at any time and change their options.
“We want to provide members of the irrigated agriculture industry with only the information they want, when and where they need it,” said Andy McGuire. “We want to get research results and other information out as quickly as possible to those that use it on a daily basis. This system replaces an older print-based information-delivery system. That not only saves money, it expedites the delivery of specific information to specific audiences. Email gives users the ability to receive timely water management information at home, in the office, or on a smart phone.”
“We want to provide members of the irrigated agriculture industry with only the information they want, when and where they need it,” said Andy McGuire. “We want to get research results and other information out as quickly as possible to those who use it on a daily basis. This system replaces an older print-based information-delivery system. That not only saves money, it expedites the delivery of specific information to specific audiences. Email gives users the ability to receive timely water management information at home, in the office, or on a smart phone.”
Alerts will be topic specific, McGuire said. For instance, WSU’s pest-monitoring team will quickly notify potato growers when crop-damaging insects are spotted in potato fields. “Timely information helps growers be judicious about pesticide use, thus improving overall water quality.”
The new system is available at http://extension.wsu.edu/irrigatedag.
Cougars Expand Homemade Hummus Business
May 2010 wasn’t the best time for Heath and Tish Barnes to launch their new hummus business. The bad economy aside, Bronzestone Hummus was competing with not only big-name U.S. labels like Sabra and Tribe, but also with other companies introducing their brands at the same time. But the Barneses had a huge advantage: Washingtonians, especially on the west side of the state, want locally grown food, and Bronzestone is the only hummus manufacturer that uses chickpeas directly from the family farm, located 60 miles from its Clarkston, Wash., plant.
“Many of our other ingredients are also sourced locally, making us the only hummus company that uses Pacific Northwest-grown products and 100 percent Washington-grown chickpeas,” said Heath, who graduated from Washington State University in 2000 with a degree in agricultural marketing. “We believe in the smaller farm-to-table concept, so people know where their food is coming from. I think this is one thing that small companies can do that the big-name brands just can’t match.”
Now more than a year later, Bronzestone Hummus, named for the rich color and smooth texture of its product, has expanded its market presence to stores and cooperatives in Washington, Idaho, Oregon and Montana. Not bad for a pair who initially started with a few hummus recipes they shared with only family and friends.
Getting to where they are today hasn’t come without its challenges, Heath said. He and Tish work seven days a week with help from their children on every aspect of Bronzestone’s operation, from hand-selecting producers, soaking and cooking garbanzo beans, roasting red bell peppers, garlic and onions, and blending the hummus to sealing it in 10-ounce tubs, packing them in boxes and delivering them to their buyers.
“We thought because we had a product that was better in flavor and local, using only the finest ingredients, that we could command somewhat of a premium for our product,” Heath said. “We were wrong. We have spent countless hours doing in-store demos and free samplings of every kind. Probably the biggest battle is trying to secure shelf space and, once on the shelf, keeping that shelf space. We work with farmers who employ sustainable practices that take care of the ground in a way that will leave future production possible for generations to come. We will not sacrifice quality for a profit. That is, in my opinion, the difference between the small guy and the big names.”
Learn more about Trish and Heath at http://bit.ly/zrLSFh.
What’s Your Zone?
The USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map is the standard by which gardeners and growers can determine which plants are most likely to thrive at a location. The map is based on the average annual minimum winter temperature, divided into 10-degree Fahrenheit zones. For the first time, the newly revised map is available as an interactive GIS-based map, for which a broadband Internet connection is recommended, and as static images for those with slower Internet access. Users may also simply type in a ZIP Code and find the hardiness zone for that area.
Find out where you stand by checking out http://bit.ly/ACgTdh.
Ken Eastwell Helps Growers Keep It Clean
Ken Eastwell, a professor in the Washington State University Department of Plant Pathology based at WSU’s Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center in Prosser, has been appointed director of the Clean Plant Center of the Northwest. As director of CPCNW, Eastwell provides leadership for the development and distribution of deciduous fruit trees, grapevines and hops that are free of viruses and virus-like agents.
“Viruses are particularly devastating to specialty crops such as tree fruits, grapes and hops,” said Eastwell. “Because these crops are perennial, annual losses caused by viruses occur every year and can ruin the economic outlook of a farming operation.”
“The National Clean Plant Network has provided a critical focal point for researchers, regulatory agencies and industry to share ideas and advance the production of virus-tested foundation planting stock to meet the nation’s needs,” Eastwell said.
The National Clean Plant Network is an industry-driven program designed to provide virus-tested propagation material to improve productivity and help growers and nurseries be more competitive in global markets. Domestic and international sales are negatively impacted by increased production costs and lower quality of fruits, nuts, hops and grapes, and their products. Programs to provide disease-free foundation plant material were established in the 1950s and 1960s torelieve to the economic burden that growers at the time by diseases caused by virus-like agents. In 2009, producers of perennial specialty crops united to help create the National Clean Plant Network, with initial funding through the 2008 Farm Bill. The National Clean Plant Network now supports 15 centers across the U.S. representing five perennial specialty crops.
The Clean Plant Center of the Northwest is online at http://bit.ly/cpcnwwsu.
Feb. 11: Women in Agriculture Conference. Women face unique challenges in growing viable businesses in farming and ranching. They also learn differently than men and like to connect with other women farmers in sharing experiences, knowledge and resources. At this conference, keynote presentations will be broadcast across the state to multiple county sites, and local presenters will reflect the needs of those regions. Save the date of Feb. 11 for this wonderful opportunity to learn and grow. If you are interested in attending one of these workshops, please send your contact information to Debra Hansen Kollock at email@example.com and you will be notified of all upcoming news and details. Please type “Women in Ag” in the subject line. Or call (509) 684-2588. Learn more »
Feb. 24 – 25: Specialty Cut Flower School. Washington State University and the Seattle Wholesale Growers Market are offering a Specialty Cut Flower Growers School focusing on sustainable flower growing techniques for the Pacific Northwest. Topics to be covered include business planning basics; plant selection; growing techniques; pest-management strategies; specialized equipment; quality postharvest care; season extension; and marketing opportunities. Learn more »
Find more upcoming events on the Green Times blog »