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Hal Collins examines samples of soil bacteria in lab dishes. Link to photo information
Microbiologist Hal Collins examines soil bacteria that cause nitrogen gas to escape from crop fields into the air. Click the image for more information about it.

Climate-Friendly Farming Project Underway

By Jan Suszkiw
June 16, 2005

Reducing greenhouse gases from agriculture is the goal of Climate Friendly Farming, a five-year cooperative project involving the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and Washington State University (WSU).

Agriculture accounts for 7 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gases. For example, cows release methane while digesting food; applying nitrogen-based fertilizers leads to nitrous oxide emissions; and tilling speeds the breakdown of soil organic matter, releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Agriculture can have positive effects, too. Modifying farm practices can preempt the formation and release of gases. For example, instead of tilling, a farmer might adopt direct seeding, a practice that leaves organic matter relatively undisturbed and increases soil carbon storage, according to ARS soil scientists Hal Collins and Dave Huggins. Collins is based at the ARS Vegetable and Forage Crops Production Research Unit at Prosser, Wash., and Huggins works at the ARS Land Management and Water Conservation Research Unit at Pullman, Wash.

They're among 30 researchers, Extension agents and others comprising the Climate Friendly Farming team. The project, led by Chris Feise, director of WSU's Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources, was established in 2004 to address concerns that greenhouse gases from farming help drive global climate change.

Collins and Huggins lead research to mitigate emissions from irrigated and dryland farming systems. WSU scientists oversee dairy research, computer modeling, socio-economic analyses and farmer outreach.

Collins' projects include evaluating the carbon-sequestering and organic matter-building potential of fiber obtained from manure that's passed through an anaerobic digester. He's also tracking the fate of nitrogen that's been applied to corn and potato crops through center-pivot irrigation.

Huggins, meanwhile, is designing novel cropping systems that avoid disturbing the soil. Two examples are conventional and organic direct-seeding, and perennial cropping systems. He's also integrating global positioning and geographical information systems to devise new methods of applying and using nitrogen fertilizer that will mitigate greenhouse gas emissions.

ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief scientific research agency.