The call caught Chris Feise off guard that morning in 2002. Preoccupied with mundane daily details, he was startled when the voice on the other end identified herself as a staffer from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation.

The caller explained that WSU alumnus Allen, of Microsoft fame, was interested in Feise’s work on sustainable agriculture — it seemed innovative and might be something the foundation would like to fund. She asked Feise, director of WSU’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources (CSANR), for project ideas.
 
After consulting with colleague David Granatstein, sustainable agriculture specialist, Feise suggested a version of their integrated pest management program. “Think bigger,” was the foundation response. “What about global warming?”
So began an 18-month conversation that resulted in the founding of the Climate Friendly Farming project, coordinated through the CSANR. The statewide project — initially a five-year, $3.75 million research effort to study the impact of agricultural systems on global climate change — is today the world’s most comprehensive program for assessing agricultural greenhouse gas emissions.

Interdisciplinary effort

Chad Kruger (left), BIOAg educator for CSANR, said the project’s key objective is to create a database of agricultural practices and techniques that can decrease the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O) released into the atmosphere.

“Our ultimate goals are to understand how much reduction we can achieve with new techniques, how much it will cost, and what practice changes are needed to make it happen,” he said.

The Climate Friendly Farming (CFF) project has supported more than 30 research projects across the state involving at least 40 people. According to Kruger, the program relies on interdisciplinary collaboration between departments such as biological systems engineering, crops and soils, the School of Economic Sciences as well as county extension educators, USDA Agricultural Research Service personnel and the CSANR.

The project focuses on three of the most important farming systems in the Pacific Northwest — dairy production, irrigated crop farming and dryland grain farming. Using a range of methods including technology research and development, environmental modeling, socio-economic analysis and educational outreach, the team hopes to make local as well as global impact.

Agrarian greenhouse gas
Kruger explained that climate change is caused in part by the buildup of greenhouse gases (GHGs) — CO2, CH4 and N2O. The GHGs trap excess heat in the atmosphere that leads to long-term warming trends.

Though GHG buildup is primarily the result of burning fossil fuels, agricultural practices add significant amounts to the mix — by some estimates, as much as 25 percent of the CO2, 40 percent of the N2O and 65 percent of the methane emitted over the past two centuries.

Dairies, for example, traditionally store manure in settling lagoons. As the manure breaks down, it releases vast amounts of methane into the atmosphere.

Plowing, burning and erosion of farm ground can disturb organic matter in the soil, which allows sequestered carbon to be released into the atmosphere as CO2. In addition, inefficient irrigation and use of fertilizer can result in excess N2O being released from the soil.

Carbon farming
The CFF team is looking at a number of innovative ways to mitigate these problems. In fact, agriculture has the potential to act as a carbon sink, tying up CO2 from the air and storing it in the soil. Under good conditions, dryland planting and harvesting techniques — such as direct or “no-till” seeding — can sequester up to 1,700 pounds of carbon per acre over a three-year period.

Precision nitrogen management on dryland farms also is showing promise for conserving nutrients as well as improving carbon sequestration capacity of the soil. Precision management allows for cost-effective, site-specific applications of fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides and water.

For dairies, developments in anaerobic digestion technology are providing new ways to capture methane and convert it into energy while recycling manure into value-added byproducts.

In other venues, researchers are developing alternative biofuels from plants such as canola and switchgrass. Kruger said agricultural biomass potentially can offset significant amounts of CO2 as the plants “recycle” carbon already present in the atmosphere.
 
To learn more about Climate Friendly Farming see ONLINE @ http://cff.wsu.edu. For in-depth information on climate change see the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change ONLINE @ www.ipcc.ch.