Putting local barley, flavor on the horizon
Using traditional breeding techniques, scientists at WSU are developing new barley varieties for the microbrewing and distilling industries. Brewers and distillers like Emerson Lamb of Westland Distillery and Charles Finkel of The Pike Brewing Company can’t wait to get locally grown, custom malted barley into their mash tuns.
They’re excited about the possibilities for imparting local flavor in beer and whiskey with barley grown and malted in western Washington, with specific qualities that they can choose.
As a small distiller, Lamb has the flexibility to produce single batch, single varietal, or even single farm whiskeys and it’s important to him that his product reflect its place of origin.
“That’s why we’re really excited about locally grown and custom malted barley. We can be hyper-local with flavor,” he said.
Lamb is glad to find his own spirit of experimentation shared at the WSU Mount Vernon Research and Extension Center.
Measure the impact of organic farms with OFoot
A team of Washington State University scientists will soon make it easier for organic farmers to calculate and reduce their carbon footprints.
OFoot is a user-friendly, interactive tool that combines plant and soil modeling information with energy analysis of farm equipment to create a more complete picture of a farm’s carbon footprint. The tool is part of a larger research project that may one day help scientists accurately model various environmental impacts, from water and soil toxicity to air pollution. OFoot is scheduled for public release in September 2014.
Soil scientist, Lynne Carpenter-Boggs and her research team have been working on a multistep process that applies the results from studies of carbon and nitrogen emissions done in the laboratory to the field.
“Mitigation of GHG emissions…must start with the identification of the most significant carbon footprint and GHG sources or hotspots in agricultural production systems,” said Cornelius Adewale, a graduate student working on the OFoot project.
In addition to the more obvious sources of greenhouse gases like cars and trucks burning fossil fuels, hotspots can include farm materials, which is why OFoot includes a life-cycle assessment (LCA) tool that looks at farm inputs such as electricity and farm equipment as well as outputs.
Usama Zaher, assistant research professor in biological systems engineering at WSU and co-principal investigator on the project, explained that the LCA looks at “all the footprints of the supplies” including fuel, equipment, and others. Fuel is burned on-site, for example, but is generally produced and transported from elsewhere, which requires more energy. Similarly, farm equipment has what Carpenter-Boggs calls “embedded energy” because it is made of metal, which takes energy to mine and produce. OFoot’s LCA even distinguishes between various makes and models of equipment by their weight and calculates the embodied energy in each. “It is, as much as possible, a cradle-to-grave assessment,” Carpenter-Boggs said.
OFoot expands CropSyst, adding 10 crops to the existing list and asking questions about crop sequence. The soon to be released OFoot website has a clean and minimalist design; the intuitive interface allows the user to simply choose a category, select from a number of options, and then input the amount used for each option (acres farmed, pounds of fertilizer used, etc.). OFoot’s input-output evaluation makes it invaluable, according to Zaher. “We can take a global LCA database and scale it to…wherever our study is and add system-specific components.”
Right now, OFoot’s main impact may be seen among organic farmers, but most farmers should find that OFoot fits their operations. Having an easy-to-use, accurate, comprehensive system in place means that it should be fairly simple for farmers to estimate and report their farms’ carbon footprints to buyers, said Zaher. This may also enable grocery stores and corporations such as Walmart to adhere to commitments to purchasing organic, local, and low-carbon-footprint foods and products.
Zaher said that in the future, OFoot research may expand to include analysis of pesticide usage and other environmental consequences such as eutrophication (the overgrowth of algae stimulated by high nitrogen from runoff, often resulting in oxygen-starved dead zones in bodies of water). Ultimately, the OFoot tool is designed to evaluate the impacts of organic farming methods on climate change.
For more information, visit http://csanr.wsu.edu/organic-farming-footprints/.
OFoot is funded through an Organic Agriculture Research and Education Initiative grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture. In addition to Carpenter-Boggs and Zaher, co-PIs include David Granatstein, Claudio Stockle, David Huggins, Stewart Higgins, Roger Nelson, Steve Verhey, and the late Jeff Smith. Graduate students Cornelius Adewale and Marina Heppenstall are also involved in the project, as is researcher and web designer Bryan Carlson. More information can be found at csanr.wsu.edu/organic-farming-footprints.
You can also friend us on Facebook at the WSU Organic Farm page, here.
New Online Master’s Degree for the Ag Industry
Washington State University is launching a new online degree program to meet the growing need for highly skilled field practitioners and managers for today’s technologically advanced agricultural industry. The Master of Science in agriculture with an emphasis in plant health management (PHM) couples WSU’s plant science and plant protection programs with business management courses. The result is a new degree that gives students the ability to go from field to lab to executive boardroom without breaking stride.
The program is accepting applications now for its first cohort this fall and is offering online information sessions for prospective students wishing to learn more.
Decade of organic farming research for long-term solutions
If you’re starting a new organic farm and you want to boost organic matter in your soil, you’ll want to invest in as much compost as you can. That’s just one finding from over a decade of research on organic farming systems by WSU soil scientists in Puyallup.
Designed to help farmers improve their profitability and sustainability, the work sheds light on how different soil amendments, tillage practices and cover cropping systems impact soil quality, crop yield, nutrients and profitability with crops like lettuce, spinach, snap beans, broccoli, winter squash and wheat.
Evaluating soil changes in complex management systems requires multiple years, multiple rotation cycles, and multiple grants over the long haul.
“This year marks 11 growing seasons and with current funding, the research program will complete 13 growing seasons,” said soil scientist Craig Cogger. “That gets you a pretty mature system.”
Cogger and fellow soil scientist Andy Bary developed the long-term research program with extensive input from organic growers west of the Cascade Mountains.
“We wanted to help growers figure out which inputs will make organic systems more sustainable and profitable – which work better than others,” Bary said.
Cogger and Bary started the research program in 2003 on six acres of certified organic research land at the WSU Research and Extension Center in Puyallup, Washington. It is one of a handful of long-term research programs in the country focused on organic farming.
Here are a few highlights from the research:
Organic matter matters
Carbon is a major factor in overall soil health. Experiments showed that adding compost with a high-carbon content came out ahead compared to adding compost derived from chicken manure and bedding that was higher in nitrogen but lower in carbon. Adding high-carbon compost resulted in higher organic matter levels, lower soil compaction, and faster water infiltration, in addition to higher soil pH, more microbial biomass, and a larger bank of nitrogen in the soil organic matter – all of which add up to plants having a better chance of getting the nutrition they need.
Tillage tools, frequency and depth
A more surprising result noted by soil scientist Doug Collins was that tilling soil with a rotary spader, which turns the soil gently, did not result in less disturbance to soil life, compared to tilling with conventional equipment like a rototiller, plow or disc. “From the soil biology perspective, tillage was tillage,” Collins said. However, in a pasture-based system where tillage was less frequent, the array of organisms living in the soil, that is, the soil food web, was more diverse.
Where plots were tilled with the deeper reaching spader, soil compaction was reduced, making a better environment for plant roots. Cogger believes this may have contributed to higher vegetable crop yields in the spader-tilled plots in some years.
Suitable cover cropping
Growing a cover crop generally improves soil quality. But comparing three different cover crop systems revealed differences that can help growers choose the right system for their needs and, ultimately, improve their bottom line.
For growers who have enough land and want to raise livestock along with vegetables that don’t demand a lot of fertilizer like lettuce and squash, a pasture-based system could work well. A three-year rotation — grazing sheep and raising chickens on pasture planted with a grass and clover mix — required less tillage, reduced the need for added amendments, and resulted in higher soil microbial activity and a more diverse soil food web.
Planting cover crops between rows during the growing season – known as relay planting or interseeding – reduced the need for tillage compared with post-harvest cover crops. Relay cover crops are best suited for rotations where they don’t compete with crops such as fall lettuce or carrots that are harvested too late in the season to establish a post-harvest cover crop.
The bottom line
As long as adequate nutrients are provided, a variety of systems can produce good yields. Except for crops that demand a lot of nitrogen in the pasture system, yields were similar across all experiments.
Net returns were greater than production costs most years in all of the systems. However, no one size fits all. For broccoli, a high input system that included relay cover cropping, tilling with a spader, and high-carbon compost was most profitable. For winter squash, the pasture system with spader tillage was most profitable.
The path forward
The long-term organic farming research has inspired new research projects. Collins has started a reduced-tillage in organic agriculture experiment. Food safety specialist, Karen Killinger, is taking a closer look at tracking pathogens in the farming system to ensure safe foods. And research on greenhouse gas emissions in organic systems is underway.
As he prepares several publications summing up this long-term research, Cogger looks down the road and wonders, “What does it take to maintain a system that has been built up with soil amendments? How long can we sustain these systems with lower inputs if we invest a lot up front?”
Cogger, who has been with WSU Extension for 30 years, expects to retire next year. He leaves a legacy of organic farming research and new questions to colleagues like Doug Collins who will take up the mantle to lead the next ten years of organic farming research.