PULLMAN, Wash. – Climate change is already transforming agriculture in Washington. To help farmers deal with climate change, Bill Pan, a Washington State University professor of crop and soil sciences, is talking to them about ways to both adapt to changes and slow them down.
“We want to work with growers to adapt their cropping systems to the inevitable climate changes so they can stay flexible to deal with those changes,” he said. “And we also want growers to know how they can mitigate and slow down climate change.”
Saving money, increasing yields
Pan and his colleagues, in a project called Regional Approaches to Climate Change (REACCH), have been hosting workshops and field days to show farmers the benefits of developing flexible systems for adapting to variable weather – even if they don’t necessarily believe the long-term projections of climate change science.
At these events, Pan talks about ways growers can save money, increase their yields and improve their soils.
“If you reduce fertilizer usage, for example, that helps the environment and it helps the farmers’ pocketbooks,” he said. “Showing them these types of short-term benefits leads to discussions of long-term benefits. Most producers want to do what’s good for the environment, but they have to stay in business, too.”
Normal fertilizer applied by farmers adds nitrogen uniformly across the field. But fields are variable, and applications should be more prescriptive, Pan said. Nitrous oxide, a byproduct of fertilizer, is one of the two biggest greenhouse gases warming the planet.
Also, Pan said, it takes a substantial amount of fossil fuel to make fertilizer in the first place. Using fossil fuels produces carbon dioxide, the other major greenhouse gas.
Fertilizer precision, crop rotation
Pan said there are several ways growers can significantly reduce the amount of fertilizer they use, which saves them money. One is to add GPS location equipment in tractors to help prevent overlap in application.
The biggest positive impact growers may have on climate change is in redesigning crop rotations. In eastern Washington, wheat has been the staple crop for over a century. Another is to map fields to streamline nitrogen application and adjust for variable yield potential across hilly landscapes. That information can be programmed into a computer-controlled applicator that regulates how much fertilizer is applied to different areas of the field.
Opportunities exist for growing different crops, such as oilseeds and legumes, that have different nutrient needs – and they can help reduce greenhouse gas production while still providing an income for farmers, Pan said.
“Legumes are really helpful,” he said. “They take nitrogen from the atmosphere and basically make their own nitrogen when it’s needed. That reduces the amount of fertilizer needed.”
He said eastern Washington growers have had great success growing peas, lentils and garbanzo beans, making money harvesting and selling these crops and saving money with reduced fertilizer needs. Recent efforts by local U.S. Department of Agriculture breeders and WSU agronomists to develop and test winter varieties will help expand acreage of these types of crops into the drier areas of the inland Pacific Northwest.
Oilseed option adds local value
Another alternative crop showing up more often around the region is canola, which Pan and colleagues have been encouraging farmers to grow for several years.
“Canola can be sold to either make biofuels or food-grade oil, diversifying marketing options in response to crop price fluctuations,” Pan said.
Washington already has several oilseed processing plants, so growing oilseed crops helps support the regional economy by growing value-added industries and jobs in local rural communities.
“We can really cultivate our own domestic supply chain for this,” Pan said. “Most of our wheat is exported but current facilities can process all the canola we can produce right now.”
Canola can help fight certain weeds that otherwise thrive in wheat fields, so alternating with canola helps “clean up” fields.
There are several other strategies that growers can consider for helping mitigate climate change in the long term while also improving their flexibility and bottom line in the short term. See https://www.reacchpna.org/crops-and-soils for ideas relating to these options.