Researchers tackle waste, inefficiencies; find cost savings
By STEVE BROWN
SEATTLE -- Researchers based at Washington State University's main campus at Pullman came to the westside of the state to report on how they're making agriculture greener.
Lynne Carpenter-Boggs and Chad Kruger described innovations in "green manure," power generation and increased food production, all with an eye toward softening the environmental impact of the ag industry.
Howard Grimes, WSU vice president for research and dean of the graduate school, said the purpose of the presentation was to let the public know what progress the university is making, to project its research to Western Washington, where most of the people who influence environmental policy live and to get researchers to tell their stories.
"They find partners and build relationships with a new network of collaborators," Grimes said.
Kruger, interim director at the WSU Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources, described some of the challenges WSU is addressing.
"Pretty much all the useable land in the world is already being used," he said. "But less of it is being fallowed to allow the soil to recover. Demands for food will keep increasing.
"Nitrogen is essential in producing food, but nitrogen is a major polluter of the environment. We don't use what we make very well."
Energy is also a limited resource, Kruger said. As an example of waste, he showed a can of diet soda. As it's designed to do, it provides a single calorie of energy. But to produce the soda took 600 calories of energy; to produce the can, 1,000 calories.
Carpenter-Boggs, research leader for Biologically Intensive and Organic Agriculture -- known as BIOAg -- listed some of the sustainability projects her team is pursuing.
* Methyl bromide -- "a fairly nasty chemical, an ozone depleter" -- has been used for years to kill diseases in soil. As an alternative, BIOAg is working with potato growers and conifer nurseries to use mustard for the same purpose.
"The same chemicals that give the sharp smell and taste to table mustard are biologically active and can kill organisms in the soil," she said.
* When mint is processed, 99 percent of the plant is left over. When researchers considered how much of the nitrogen used to fertilize the crop was being wasted, they began composting the waste. The end product is a popular soil amendment for orchardists, she said.
* Animal operations often discard their carcasses in landfills. When BIOAg demonstrated how carcasses could be composted, "Field day visitors were always surprised at how little odor was produced."
Carpenter-Boggs said 32 percent of Washington dairies are composting some of their carcasses. Before the project began, that number was 1 percent.
Kruger added that the process also eliminates the cost of disposal as well as retrieving the nutrient value of the carcass.
* The cost of nitrogen has skyrocketed, Carpenter-Boggs said. The cost of applying 150 pounds per acre on 1,000 acres climbed from $30,000 in 2004 to $120,000 in 2009.
Legumes are useful for the rhizobial bacteria on their root nodules that absorb nitrogen and distribute it to the plant.
"We're working to improve the process," she said.
The BIOAg team is working with plant breeders to develop better beans, tapping into the global collection of thousand of varieties of chickpeas, dry beans and lentils.
Kruger, as coordinator of the Climate Friendly Farming Project for the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources, focuses on developing practices and technologies that save energy, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, sequester carbon in soils and provide renewable, biomass-based fossil fuel alternatives.
He described how anaerobic digesters have been used in Asia for millennia to produce low-grade methane for fuel.
"Let's improve on this process, making the materials much more valuable," he said. In addition to biogas, the process also produces solid fiber, valuable as a horticultural product, and liquid effluent.
Commercial-scale digester systems are in operation, but Kruger's team is developing a small-scale, household anaerobic digester.
He also described efforts to ramp up the composting of material that ends up in landfills, including food and paper.
Kruger said the waste biomass in Washington is being inventoried. The 16.4 million tons of waste -- from forests, agriculture, manure and food waste -- could provide 50 percent of the state's residential electricity. That equals 712 million tons of carbon dioxide reduction.