How NW Ag can deal with Climate Change

Regional Approaches to Climate Change for Pacific Northwest Agriculture
By Steve Petrie
Center Director and Professor of Soil Science
Columbia Basin Agricultural Research Center
– As featured in Oregon Wheat Grower’s Magazine

The topic of climate change is filled with questions: How much will the climate change over what time span? What effects will the projected climate changes have on my wheat crop? What effect will climate change have on the pests like diseases, insects, and weeds that hinder my crop? What kind of regulations might we face? Might I really get paid to manage nitrogen fertilizer or soil carbon? The list could go on for pages.

A host of climate models for the Pacific Northwest (PNW) all project overall warmer temperatures, especially in the summer, and many project drier summers as well. On the other hand, winters may be wetter in the future. These projected changes in temperature and moisture will affect dryland wheat and barley crops as well as the pests that attack the crops. Climate models also predict changes in the timing and availability of water for irrigated crops in some areas in the region.

Scientists from the PNW have joined together to begin to answer some of these questions as they relate to wheat production systems. REgional Approaches to Climate CHange for Pacific Northwest Agriculture (REACCH-PNA) consists of a team of more than 30 scientists from Oregon State University, the University of Idaho, Washington State University, and the Agricultural Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This $20 million, five-year project aims to ensure the long-term viability of cereal-based farming in the inland Pacific Northwest amid a changing climate and to identify farming practices that can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. We are conducting field research at eight research farms and various private farms in northeastern Oregon, southeastern Washington and Idaho’s panhandle. The long term experiments at the Pendleton and Sherman Stations of the Columbia Basin Agricultural Research Center will be important resources for this project because they are the oldest crop management experiments in the western US and they represent a range of practices from burning to manure application and plowing to no-till. We are using a holistic approach to study the following:
• the relationship between climate change and cereal crops, primarily winter wheat
• how production practices might contribute to or help mitigate climate change
• what farming methods might help these crops be more resilient to changing climate conditions
• factors that influence decisions about crop management

The scientists represent a broad array of disciplines including agronomy, climate science, computer science, economics, entomology, geography, plant pathology, rural sociology, soil science, weed science and more. REACCH-PNA builds on the teamwork and collaboration fostered by Solutions to Environmental and Economic Problem (STEEP) and other regional research projects and includes all three aspects of land grant institutions: research, Extension, and teaching. A number of OSU scientists are involved in the REACCH-PNA project including:
• John Antle, Agriculture and Resource Economics
• Susan Capalbo, Agriculture and Resource Economics
• Stephen Machado, Dryland Cropping System Agronomist at CBARC
• Phil Mote, Oregon Climate Change Research Institute
• Steve Petrie, Columbia Basin Agricultural Research Center

This project was funded by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) starting in February 2011.

One of the first steps in our project is to collect baseline data on various greenhouse gas emissions as well as various indicators of water quality so that we can assess the impacts of any changes that come about as a result of this project. Monitoring will continue throughout the project.

Integrating existing computer models is a key part of REACCH-PNA, including regional climate modeling, crop modeling, and economic modeling. Testing, validating, and integrating these various models should help us understand how the climate is projected to change in the PNW and how these changes may affect crops and cropping system profitability.

Much of our field work addresses two broad goals; first, figuring out how to reduce the potential impacts of various farming practices on the emission of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2) and nitrous oxide (N2O) (referred to as “mitigation”), and second, reducing the effects of the projected climate changes on agricultural production (referred to as “adaptation”).

Our work on mitigation includes increasing our understanding of how various production practices such tillage and cropping intensity affect the potential of the soil to sequester or emit CO2, primarily through the loss or gain of soil organic matter. Production practices such as direct seeding may reduce or even halt the decline of soil organic matter, especially when coupled with more frequent cropping and the addition of supplemental organic materials. Improved soil organic matter, particularly at or near the soil surface, can pay dividends to growers through reduced soil erosion, increased water infiltration, and increased yields. Finally, various ‘green payments’ may be available to growers, which make these practices even more financially attractive.

Nitrous oxide is a potent greenhouse gas and the primary source of N2O is nitrogen (N) fertilizer. Practices that increase N fertilizer use efficiency (NUE) such as precision applications and more accurate recommendations can reduce the potential for N loss as N2O, a win-win situation for growers.

Research related to adaptation includes evaluating cropping systems or management strategies that are more suitable for the conditions are likely to occur under the projected climate changes. We will evaluate cropping systems that include more crops and less fallow, greater cropping system diversity including oilseed crops, increased use of amendments that promote greater nutrient cycling, and practices that increase water and nutrient use efficiency. The success of many of these factors will be determined by the environmental conditions throughout the region.

Biological stresses on cereal production such as diseases, insects, and weeds are likely to change as the climate changes. An important part of our work is designed to anticipate these changes, predict the implications for crop management, and begin to develop strategies to address these biological stressors.

Farming systems are more than simply weather and climate and biology – they are managed by people who make decisions based economics and policies and other factors. A significant part of REACCH-PNA is to better understand the social and economic factors that growers face and how public policy can affect these factors. Growers will be surveyed about their farming operations, and this baseline information used to help assess our success.

REACCH-PNA also includes an education component which has the goal of showing K-12 teachers how agriculture can play a role in climate change mitigation and adaptation. REACCH-PNA is also preparing curricula for undergraduate and graduate education so that citizens and professionals are better prepared to address climate-related challenges and understand the role of agriculture in these challenges.

Finally, one of the most important aspects of REACCH-PNA is communicating the results of this work to stakeholders so that improved farming methods are put into practice. A key to our success will be actively involving stakeholders including farmers, state and federal agencies such as state departments of agriculture and EPA, wheat grower organizations such the Oregon Wheat Growers League, input industries who supply fertilizers and chemicals, and environmental organizations that are working to reduce climate change. Our Stakeholder Advisory Committee (SAC) has been actively involved in REACCH-PNA from the initial meeting to the preparation of the proposal to our Launch Meeting in March of 2011 and the first Annual Meeting held in Pendleton from February 29 to March 2, 2012. The SAC members provided key input that helped shape the successful proposal and their on-going involvement is essential to the success of REACCH-PNA. Members of the SAC from Oregon include:

• Blake Rowe, administrator of the Oregon Wheat Commission and Oregon Wheat Growers League
• Walt Powell, Vice President of OWGL
• Jeff Newtson, Farmer and former President of OWGL
• Jerry Zahl, Chair of the Pendleton Station Liaison Committee
• Lori Brigotti, Board of the Pacific Northwest Direct Seed Association
• Steve Campbell, NRCS state office in Portland
• Kevin Hudson, Farming Manager for the CTUIR
• Jim Petersen, VP of research at Limagrain
• Ben Vitale, The Climate Trust, Portland
• Patrick Mazza, Climate Solutions, Portland

The three land grant institutions and the USDA-ARS share a long history in the PNW of collaborative efforts that have benefitted cereal crop farmers. REACCH-PNA continues and expands on this tradition. I invite you to visit the REACCH-PNA website at to learn more about the project.

Disclaimer: Articles featured on Oregon Report are the creation, responsibility and opinion of the authoring individual or organization which is featured at the top of every article.