Seattle Times 12-05-07 Soil carbon, climate among global changes impacting agriculture

Seattle Times
Soil carbon, climate among global changes impacting agriculture
By Christopher Schwarzen
More carbon in the air means less in the ground, and for farmers, that's bad
news, said a local researcher studying how climate change is impacting
In Washington state, more than 90 million metric tons of carbon dioxide are
released annually into the air. Globally, most scientists connect carbon-dioxide
emissions and other greenhouse gases to global warming and climate change.
While modern farming methods are partly to blame, the real concern is what
effect climate change could have on local agriculture, and from there, on the
regional economy.
About 600 farmers attending last week's Focus on Farming conference heard
Chad Kruger speak on the future of farming in temperatures that have grown
warmer each year since the beginning of the 20th century. Kruger works at
Washington State University's Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural
Tillage has helped release carbon into the air, and levels found in the top foot of
soils are expected to continue dropping through at least the year 2040, Kruger
said. Worse, when you lose the carbon in the soil — a key ingredient for plant
growth — you also lose natural nitrogen, another necessity to healthy crops.
"We've masked that with artificial fertilizers, but as fertilizers increase in price,
we'll see that become an issue," Kruger said.
Fertilizer prices will continue climbing in the United States if the nation doesn't
lessen its demand for oil. Fertilizer is a petroleum-based product, said Fred
Kirschenmann, a farmer working at Iowa State University's Leopold Center
for Sustainable Agriculture.
The mass dependance on oil also is adding to greenhouse-gas emissions
responsible for climate change, Kirschenmann said, and a move to alternative
fuels would help tremendously. It also would help local farmers if they can begin
growing seeds for biodiesel products.
Snohomish County already is using about 250 acres to test various seed crops
for biodiesel.
One farmer who could benefit from new crops is Dale Reiner, of Monroe, who
has 35 acres of canola.
"We should be looking at ways to put up with future [climate] changes," Reiner
said. "That's presuming we can change the direction of global warming, and I'm
not sure we can, but we at least need to try."
One result of global warming, Kruger said, has been higher annual temperatures
in the Puget Sound region. If that continues, there will be less snow and more
melt-off earlier in the season, prompting crop-rotation changes. Less water would
be available during the summer for irrigation, and the spring months would be
more prone to flooding.
Already, severe flooding has put some area farmers out of business.
"Flooding has to be a large contributor to the decrease of Snohomish County
farmers," said Sultan farmer Roger Finley, who watched the waters of the
Skykomish River flood his fields and tear out his fences last year. "You can't
incur the added expense and maintain profitability."
One solution, Kirschenmann said, is a national program geared toward restoring
the health of the soil. Healthier soils mean less reliance on fertilizers and less
need for water. Better soil would hold water longer, which would mean less
In the end, however, farmers will have to find better ways to diversify, including
raising more than one crop and marketing more than one product, Kirschenmann
"There are unlimited possibilities for biological synergy," he said. "I think that
would mean we'd have more farmers."
Christopher Schwarzen: 425-745-7813 or