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Researchers partner with farmers to address climate change challenge

Postdoctoral researcher Zhongming Gao prepares atmospheric measurement instrumentation as part of a new USDA-funded project to study sustainable farming practices in the face of climate change.
Postdoctoral researcher Zhongming Gao prepares atmospheric measurement instrumentation as part of a new USDA-funded project to study sustainable farming practices in the face of climate change.

By Tina Hilding, Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture

PULLMAN, Wash. – A team of Washington State University, Oregon State University and University of Idaho researchers have received a $3 million U.S. Department of Agriculture grant to help wheat and cereal farmers come up with solutions and sustainable farming practices in the face of climate change.

The researchers will be testing new types of crop management practices, such as adding cover crops and cattle grazing to improve crop yields, and will compare them with traditional cropping methods.

“We’re excited to be working with area farmers on this science-based approach to developing sustainable agriculture and food systems in the Pacific Northwest,” said Shelley Pressley, associate research professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering who is leading WSU’s portion of the grant. The project is led by the University of Idaho.  (Listen to a KOHO radio interview with Shelley Pressley on this farming research.)

Farmers in the Pacific Northwest have already begun seeing the effects of a changing climate in recent years. Increases in precipitation during the winter and earlier snow melt mean that fields are often too wet in the spring for planting, and farmers are considering alternative types of crop rotations. Those trends are expected to continue with climate models predicting that the region will have hotter, dryer summers and wetter winters in future decades.

In the Inland Pacific Northwest, farmers produce more than 130 million bushels of wheat annually. Eighty-five percent of them are dryland farmers and don’t use irrigation, leaving fields fallow in the summer to conserve soil moisture. Farmers in semi-arid regions around the world grow cereal crops in a similar manner, making the Palouse an ideal region for study.

The researchers will gather data on how the alternative cropping rotations affect a variety of factors, including profitability, soil health, water use, greenhouse gas emissions, pests, and weeds. They will have two experimental sites – a drier region in St. John, Washington, which is considered a transitional area and employs fallow practices, and one in Genesee, Idaho, in which sufficient precipitation most years supports annual crop plantings.

The researchers will also use the data that they gather in computer models to make predictions about what types of farming techniques might work best in a warmer future.

Taking an integrated approach is critical as the researchers assess the biophysical and economic impacts of various cropping systems, said Pressley. The project is already drawing significant interest from farmers and agriculture industry stakeholders with many showing up for the project’s first kick-off meeting.

“From day one of this project, people have been interested in providing input,” she said.



  • Tina Hilding, communications director, Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture, 509-335-5095,

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