Washington State Magazine

Fall 2011 Earth, Wind and Food

Fall 2011

Earth, Wind - and Food

In This Issue...


A Fine Thin Skin—wind, water, volcanoes, and ice :: Different as they seem, the soils of Eastern and Western Washington have one thing in common. They come—either by water, wind, or ice—generally from elsewhere. And what takes eons to form can be covered over or erode away in a geologic heartbeat. by Tim Steury

{ WEB EXCLUSIVE–Map: Washington soils }

{ WEB EXCLUSIVE–Story: How you contribute to soil health }

{ WEB EXCLUSIVE–Story: When soil goes sour }

Above & Beyond :: In the spring of 1792, George Vancouver praised “the delightful serenity of the weather.” A few years later, William Clark complained of a dour winter that was “cloudy, dark and disagreeable.” How right they both were. Weather patterns determined by mountains and ocean grant the Pacific Northwest a temperate climate that also has a dark and unpredictable side. by Hannelore Sudermann

{ WEB EXCLUSIVE–Links: Links to weather news, AgWeatherNet, and other resources for following Pacific Northwest weather }

Billions Served :: Seven billion people will soon become nine billion before the global population levels off. Can so many people be fed from a finite Earth? Yes, they can, say WSU researchers. But the solutions will necessarily be many. by Eric Sorensen


{ WEB EXCLUSIVE–Gallery: Images of Antarctica: WSU geochemist Jeff Vervoort and interior design assistant professor Kathleen Ryan discuss their exhibit of photos from the frozen continent. }

{ WEB EXCLUSIVE–Puzzle: Creature crossings: A lesson in teaching the nature of science }

{ WEB EXCLUSIVE–Video: Valley View Fires of 2008 and Firewise Community Produced by the Spokane County Conservation District }

{ WEB EXCLUSIVE–Map: Historic wildfires of the Pacific Northwest }

{ WEB EXCLUSIVE–Story: How to protect your home from wildfires }

{ WEB EXCLUSIVE–Video: Small forest management }


{ WEB EXCLUSIVE–Project: Coug-o-lantern Stencils for carving the WSU Cougar head logo on pumpkins }

{ WEB EXCLUSIVE–Illustrations: Plans and sketches for new WSU football facilities and Martin Stadium }

{ WEB EXCLUSIVE–Recipes: Pumpkin recipes }

{ WEB EXCLUSIVE–Interactive photo: Tour the Admiralty Head Lighthouse }


{ WEB EXCLUSIVE–Gallery: Cougar logo through the years }

New media

:: The Docks by Bill Sharpsteen ’80

:: L.A. Rendezvous by Charles Argersinger

:: A Chinaman’s Chance by Alex Kuo

Cover photo: “Small Forest in the Palouse Hills” by Chip Phillips

Fall 2011
Web Exclusives

When soil goes sour

by Tim Steury | © Washington State University

Ammonia based fertilizer, which provides nitrogen, can offer a great boost to even an otherwise not so healthy soil. But ammonia fertilizer, which depends on petroleum for its manufacture, is becoming very expensive. The consistent high yields of wheat on the Palouse depend on applying about 100 pounds of fertilizer per acre, with that fertilizer currently costing $50-80/ton. More significant, however, is not the cost, but the long-term effect of applying so much fertilizer.

Soils on the Palouse before farming were generally neutral, with a pH of 7, says Rich Koenig. Since then, the pH of the soil has dropped in some cases as much as two full pH units because of ammonia-based fertilizer use.

Two pH units represent a 100-fold change, so those soils are 100-fold more acidic than they were 30 years ago.

“It’s a trend that we’re going to have to deal with at some point,” says Koenig. “We’re already seeing some pretty major crop-yield implications due to soil acidity.”

Many things change in the process of acidification, he says. “Minerals dissolve, minerals form, there are a lot of secondary byproducts, and implications in phosphorous nutrition, for example.”

The major concern is the effect of acidity on legumes, which are an integral to Palouse crop rotations and through their rhizobial activity contribute nitrogen to the soil. Excessive soil acidity inhibits the rhizobial activity.

The most extreme problem with low pH is around the Rockford, Washington, area, south of Spokane. Farmers there have long grown grass seed, which requires twice the amount of fertilizer as wheat.

“Twenty years ago, they were able to rotate legumes in,” says Koenig. But no more. The soil is simply too acidic for legumes. The pH of some soil in the area is below 4.

“Essentially they’re in a wheat-grass seed rotation,” he says. “The last five years' wheat yields have been miserable.”

The traditional remediation for low soil pH is to add lime. Unfortunately, lime in the Pacific Northwest is not readily available. Shipping in sufficient lime to treat the fields would be astronomically expensive.

Koenig’s research group is exploring some of what he considers short-term solutions.

It is possible to genetically induce tolerance in wheat. But not legumes. “The problem with legumes is not the plant,” he says, “but the bacteria.”

“Ultimately,” he says, “we’re going to have to lime.”

Categories: Agriculture, Earth sciences | Tags: Soil, Soil health, Nitrate fertilizer