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Archive for the ‘Agriculture’ Category

Wind from East, Snowy Weather from the West

The crack weather observers employed by WSU Discovery noticed an odd phenomenon this morning: a biting wind blowing from the east outside our Pullman field station, while forecasters say our first snow of the year could come out of the west.

Flickr image of windblown Palouse snow from Kamiak Butte courtesy of Roger Lynn--

It did not make sense that weather would move into the wind. Seeking clarification, we first went to the National Weather Service’s forecast discussion, a consistent source of wonky weather detail. No luck.

So we tapped Gerrit Hoogenboom, the relatively new director of Washington State University’s Agricultural Weather Network, AgWeatherNet. He passed our query to Nic Loyd, AgWeatherNet meteorologist. Here’s his ‘splanation, with a bonus comment on today’s forecast:

Yes, there is a storm system and a trough of low pressure approaching from the west today. However, winds are out of the east and southeast in many places such as Pullman this morning. Often in Washington during the late fall and winter, as low pressure approaches the coast from the west, the winds have an easterly component since wind at the surface often blows toward lower surface pressure.  Also, in eastern Washington during the late fall and winter, the surface land is cooler than the air near the warmer offshore water, especially in the morning, and so cold, heavy air moves toward the warmer, lighter, rising air to the west. Behind the cold front, the winds often switch to westerly or southwesterly.

Another way to look at it is that during November when the atmosphere is often stable with a weaker sun, winds behave differently at different heights, and surface winds do not always mix with winds higher in the atmosphere, especially at night. Therefore, winds aloft will be out of the southwest today, but winds were out of the southeast and east this morning in the lowest levels of the atmosphere only.

By the way, it does look as if the weather pattern will be cooler during the day through at least the weekend, but little if any snow is expected in the eastern Washington lowlands. There is not a lot of moisture with tonight’s weather system, however, the mountains should receive a few inches of snow.


Fresh and fruity goodness from WSU’s Tukey Orchard

A couple of days into fall—even though it feels like summer here in Pullman—and I’m craving some fruit. So I jump at the chance to head out past the bears and the golf course to Tukey Orchard and grab some fresh apples.

Apple samples at WSU's Tukey Orchard

Apple samples at WSU's Tukey Orchard

About ten varieties await me when I arrive at the warehouse on the edge of the orchard. I’m not an apple connoisseur, so I chop off samples and do a taste test. Some are sweet and crispy, others frankly a little soft for me. I end up with a bag of Berry and a bag of Tydeman’s, two toothsome varieties I’d probably never find in the grocery store, especially at 85 cents a pound.

Of course, Tukey is not all about my enjoyment of sweet fresh apples. Tree fruit research and education has long been part of Washington State University. Those efforts will be advanced even further by the largest gift in the University’s history. Apple and pear growers throughout the state agreed to make a historic investment of $27 million over the next eight years to support tree fruit research and extension.

While not all tasty Tukey produce is organic, they have several organic acres as part of WSU’s organic farm. That makes it even more appropriate to indulge, because last week was Washington Organic Week. The Tilth Producers of Washington organized the celebration with events ranging from organic chocolate tastings in Seattle to “Forks Up For Farmers” meals supporting local farms.

Apples on sale at Tukey Orchard

Apples on sale at Tukey Orchard

According to the state Department of Agriculture, Washington is second only to California in the U.S. for production of organic food and leads the country in producing organic apples, pears, cherries, sweet corn, green peas, snap beans, and onions.

More fruit sales are on the way at Tukey this fall. Next up for me: pears. The orchard has 83 varieties of apples, 11 varieties of pears, cherries and more, so I’ll be trying them out for a while. And Tukey will continue to help develop our state’s signature fruits.

As Vancouver newspaper The Columbian pointed out in an editorial praising the new tree fruit grant, “If you enjoy eating apples and pears—and as a Washingtonian, you’re obligated to—then you can rest assured about the future of those crops in the state.”

WSU's Tukey Orchard, late September 2011.

WSU's Tukey Orchard, late September 2011.

The Slime that Saves the Planet

Washington State University researchers have received half a million dollars to study a microscopic slime that they believe plays an outsized role in life on the planet.

The slime, also known as biofilm, forms a super-thin layer gluing the roots of plants to mineral surfaces and serves as a reactor in which a plant can break down the rock for vital nutrients. The process, says Kent Keller, was central to the start of land-based plant life as plants invaded the continents 350 million years ago. It continues to take place on modern volcanic ground and receding glaciers—anywhere a plant can’t get enough to eat.

A special root slime helps plants like this pine tree pull nutrients from bare rock. Flickr photo courtesy of eviltomthai.

“The magic of all of this is plants come in that are adapted to make the slime,” says Keller, co-director of the Center for Environmental Research, Education, and Outreach (CEREO) and professor in the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences. “Within 100 years, you’ve got soil. That’s an amazing thing. And it’s these slimes that are a key part of the mechanism.”

Wait, there’s more: The biofilm reactor also facilitates the most fundamental process on the planet for packing away carbon, as seen in the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. As the plant dissolves minerals, the plant’s natural carbonic acids, made from CO2 through photosynthesis, are transformed into bicarbonate that is carried in runoff to the oceans. There it precipitates as calcium carbonate.

In other words, the biofilm acts as an intermediary between carbon from the atmosphere and its storage in the earth’s crust. Absent that process, carbon dioxide would continue building up in the atmosphere until oxygen-dependent life forms suffocated in a “runaway greenhouse.”

“Without that we wouldn’t be here,” says Keller. “We’d be Venus, because Venus has no mechanism to sequester volcanic CO2.”

But there’s a mystery to the process, which Keller and a group of colleagues will explore with $492,000 from the National Science Foundation. Somehow plants employ biofilms to build up nutrients for plants to use while also releasing them for long-term storage, and they’ve done this in a way in which plants thrive and the chemistry of oceans and the atmosphere is kept in balance.

The researchers—a team of earth, life, and soil scientists—plan to grow trees in different nutrient conditions, including pure sand, to see which are best at inducing the formation of biofilm. One indicator of that will be microbial communities, which essentially generate the biofilms for shelter. The researchers hypothesize that plants in the worst conditions will be predisposed to hosting the most diverse microbial communities, the better to generate slime and nutrients.

One experiment will rely entirely on fertilized irrigation as a proxy for conventional agriculture, which is less reliant on large microbial communities for nutrients. Comparing this system with those generating their own nutrients could help open the door to agricultural systems that can use fewer artificial fertilizers.

Seven ways to puncture a wine windbag

Wine windbag need deflating? Try science. (Photo by Brian Maki, Center for Distance and Professional Education)

Wine windbag need deflating? Try science. (Photo by Brian Maki, Center for Distance and Professional Education)

Uncle Patrick gargles his wine. “I taste blackberries and cherry and oak,” he says, “and a lot of tannins.”

The only thing you know about wine is that it comes in different colors. But, with holiday meals approaching, here’s how to puncture wine windbags, thanks to Washington State University Professor Kathleen Williams:

Precipitate saliva. When Patrick says he tastes tannins, you say: “Tannins don’t have a taste. They create a sensation as they precipitate the proteins out of your saliva.” Tip: Stroke your chin sagely as you pronounce “precipitate.”

Throw in a German word. Patrick swirls the glass. “Good legs,” he observes. You say, “The French call them tears. The Germans call them kirchenfenster or church windows, because they form an arch.” Want more? Try this: “Water has more surface tension than alcohol. The evaporating alcohol pulls the water up with it. When the alcohol breaks through, the water runs down.”

Hit him with brix. Patrick looks at the label. “Oh my,” he says, “14.9 percent alcohol.” You’re ready for him. “Did you know that wines from hot areas tend to have more alcohol? That’s because the grapes have more sugar. As a rule of thumb, every 2 percent of sugar will produce about 1 percent alcohol. So this wine was originally almost a third sugar. Of course, wine makers don’t call them sugars. They call them brix.” Tip: Refill his glass. Keep refilling his glass. This becomes important later.

Diamonds are your best friend. He holds the glass up to the light. Tiny crystals stick to the sides. “It’s going bad,” he says. “Not really,” you say. “Those are potassium tartrate crystals, same thing as cream of tartar. They’re a naturally occurring acid in grapes.” Smile tolerantly, and add, “In Canada, they call them wine diamonds.”

Herbal harmony. Patrick says, “A red wine would overwhelm the turkey.” You say, “It’s not really about the turkey. It’s about the herbs with the turkey, such as onion, celery and sage. What works well is to contrast the herbs with a fruity wine, such as a Beaujolais Nouveau or a Gewürztraminer.”

Make something up. By now, Uncle Patrick should be a bit toasted, so hit him with something ludicrous, but difficult to disprove: “Gewürztraminer has an umlaut,” you say. “The word umlaut is derived from the word omelet and Gewürztraminer pairs well with omelets. As a matter of fact, most umlaut wines go well with egg-based dishes, such as quiche. It’s called a bio-linguistic reaction.”

Fancy footwork. As he sputters to object, quickly change the subject: “Do you know what the best pairing is? Scientists in England proved that it is milk and chocolate chip cookies. Speaking of dessert, how about some pie?”

WSU’s viticulture and enology program offers both undergraduate and graduate degrees, and certificates. For more information go to