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Organic Online, Nitrogen Fix, Precision Ag

Posted by | April 23, 2008

Organic Ag Online

Washington State University, the first institution in the country to offer an academic major in organic agriculture, is now offering the nation’s first online certificate in organic agriculture.

“The U.S. organic food industry has grown at a rate of 20 to 30 percent each year for more than a decade and is really challenged to find employees who understand the unique approaches used in organic agriculture,” said Kim Kidwell, associate dean for academic programs in the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences. “Those who complete the certificate will hold the credential they need to succeed in one of the fastest-growing industries in the country.”

Kidwell noted that many of those working in agriculture in Washington and throughout the United States already hold a bachelor’s degree, but may wish to expand their skill set to include organic agriculture. “This certificate fills that need,” she said.

The program’s first core course, Soils 101, “Organic Gardening and Farming,” will be available summer semester, which begins May 5. The foundation course was developed by WSU Regents Professor John Reganold, an international leader in organic agriculture.

Admission to WSU is required to enroll in courses and to earn the certificate, and participants may apply as non-degree seeking students. More information is available at WSU’s Center for Distance and Professional Education Web site ( or by calling (800) 222-4978.

Organic ag goes online

Organic ag goes online; for more info, please visit:

A Nitrogen Fix

“Nitrogen fertilizer is the single biggest expense that many farmers incur in raising their crops,” said Michael Kahn, a fellow in WSU’s Institute of Biological Chemistry and associate director of the Agricultural Research Center.

Kahn has received a three-year $510,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Biosciences Program to continue fundamental research that may someday reduce farmers’ reliance on an increasingly expensive farm input: industrially produced nitrogen fertilizer.

“Nitrogen fertilizer is made directly from natural gas, so when the price of natural gas rises, so do fertilizer prices. In addition, we don’t manufacture much of the fertilizer in the United States. Last year, we imported about 70 percent of the nitrogen fertilizer we used.” Anhydrous ammonia prices doubled from $250 a ton in 2002 to over $500 a ton last year, according to Kahn.

Legume crops, such as alfalfa, peas, lentils, soybeans and chickpeas, form symbiotic relationships with bacteria in the soil and through a complex relationship fix nitrogen gas from the air into ammonia, which the plants can use for growth.

The goal of Kahn’s research is to improve the nitrogen productivity of legumes to produce more nitrogen for subsequent crops and perhaps to transfer nitrogen fixation to other crops, such as grains that can’t currently fix nitrogen.

“The bacteria invade the plant roots, and the symbionts feed each other,” Kahn said. “The plant gives the bacteria carbon compounds that they can use to generate energy, and this energy is then used to fix nitrogen. The bacteria gives the plant the ammonia that results.”

Michael Kahn

Michael Kahn.

Precision Ag Hits the Target

At the WSU Cook Agronomy Farm, USDA-ARS soil scientist David Huggins is developing a new generation of agricultural “tools” that may allow farmers to manage dryland crops down to the square meter. According to Chad Kruger, BIOAg educator for CSANR, the precision nitrogen management program is one of the obvious home runs of the Climate Friendly Farming project.

“For farmers on the Palouse, yields can vary a lot because of all the hills.” said Kruger. “There is often poor use of nitrogen (fertilizers)…with the excess going into wells or into the air as nitrous oxide (N2O).”

He estimates agriculture is responsible for about 40 percent of global N2O emissions — a gas 297 times more powerful than CO2 for trapping atmospheric heat.

With precision agriculture, farmers use technologies such as geographical information systems (GIS) and global positioning systems (GPS) to determine site-specific applications of fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides and water.

“The overall effect is a reduction in chemical inputs and environmental degradation,” Kruger said.

Using the system, Kruger said scientists are able to decrease nitrogen applied to crops by at least 20 percent without affecting yields. That savings alone should allow the average Palouse farm “to easily recover the cost of buying the technology equipment in the first year,” he said.

Text and photo by Becky Phillips, WSU Today

Precision ag for the Palouse

David Huggins, USDA-ARS soil scientist, left, and Stewart Higgins, WSU agricultural research technician, check a solar-charged data logger at the WSU Cook Agronomy Farm. Water and temperature sensors buried throughout the fields transmit information to computers used for modeling precision agriculture systems.