Building the future of agriculture

By | February 25, 2024

Feb. 25—After a slow start, the University of Idaho College of Agricultural and Life Sciences is finally ready to begin a monumental project to build agricultural systems that can withstand the challenges of climate change.

The Innovative Agriculture and Marketing Partnerships for Idaho – commonly known at IAMP – has received $55 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It is the largest grant in the university’s history and is among 70 projects awarded nationwide from a $2.8 billion investment in the department’s Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities initiative. More than half of the money will be paid out to growers who register for the program.

“The hope is that when this program ends — it’s a five-year program — growers can sit back and have all this information in terms of what the benefit was,” said Michael Parella, dean of the agricultural college.

“Growers will decide whether these strategies that have been put in place… is it worth it for them to continue this investment?”

The information collected over the five-year period will be used to paint a broad, national picture on sustainable agriculture, Parella said. In Idaho, the program will focus on barley, beef, chickpeas, hops, potatoes, sugar beets and wheat. The goal is to register 100,000 acres of agricultural land in Idaho, preventing 31,000 to 70,000 tons of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere.

Parella pointed out that Idaho is the only state in the program that will focus on multiple commodities.

“Idaho is more advanced than many other states trying to implement this project,” he said. “We’re all excited about it. It took a tremendous amount of work to figure this out. The details are extraordinary.”

The original grant was announced in 2022 and it was hoped that work would begin immediately. Paperwork, legalities and contracts took longer than expected and the deal was only completed in May last year. If all goes well, the first growers participating in the program could begin some of the climate-smart practices this spring.

Climate change, food insecurity looms

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, there are more than 2 million farms in the United States and more than half of the country’s land is used for agricultural production.

Climate change can impact crops, livestock, soil and water supplies, as well as rural communities and farm workers. However, the agricultural sector also emits greenhouse gases into the atmosphere that contribute to climate change. The effects of climate change on agriculture will depend on the speed and severity of the change, and on how farmers and ranchers adapt.

The industry has been concerned with the impacts of climate change for years and many practices already exist to minimize greenhouse gas emissions, including crop rotation, integrated pest management and no-till or reduced-till farming methods.

The EPA monitors evidence of a changing environment through weather, oceans and ecosystems. These include shifts in temperature and precipitation patterns, increases in ocean temperatures, sea levels and acidity, melting of glaciers and sea ice, changes in the frequency, intensity and duration of extreme weather events, and shifts in the characteristics of the ecosystem, such as the duration of climate change. growing seasons, timing of flower blooms and bird migration.

These changes are the result of a buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and the warming of the planet due to global warming, the EPA said.

According to the World Bank Group, a global partnership committed to sustainable solutions to reduce poverty and build shared prosperity in developing countries, climate change and food and nutrition insecurity are two of the greatest challenges of our time.

It is estimated that global food demand will increase to feed a projected global population of 9.7 billion people by 2050. Without significant climate mitigation measures in the agri-food sector, the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global warming cannot be achieved, the partnership said. The necessary increase in food production will further escalate emissions from food systems that are not aligned with climate-friendly practices.

Farms are becoming more receptive

Sanford Eigenbrode, a university professor of entomology, and Erin Brooks, a professor of agricultural engineering, will co-lead the IAMP project in Idaho.

Eigenbrode has long been involved in future-oriented research into climate change and has regularly spoken to farmers about the consequences of global warming. Six years ago, Eigenbrode said a majority of producers in the Pacific Northwest do not view human-induced climate change as a problem. Many of them were skeptical about the reality of climate change.

Since then, Eigenbrode says, attitudes have started to change.

“I think there’s a lot more receptiveness to this message statewide,” Eigenbrode said. “I think the challenge of impending climate change and the recognition that agriculture can be better” is more acceptable to growers today.

“I’m sure there’s still a lot of skepticism, but it’s not the strange ideas it used to be.”

Since the IAMP grant was formally awarded last May, Eigenbrode and Brooks have been in contact with all partners involved in the project to ensure the contracts meet their legal requirements. Partners include the Idaho Association of Soil Conservation Districts, the Nez Perce and Coeur d’Alene Tribes, the Nature Conservancy of Idaho, Desert Mountain Grass Fed Beef and Arrowleaf Consulting. The team also ensures that the practices that will be used are clear to everyone involved and meet the standards of USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.

The portal for applications has not yet opened, but there are several farmers in the state who have already expressed interest in participating in the project.

Ladd Whalen is a farmer in Bingham County in southeastern Idaho who hopes to be included in the IAMP project.

Whalen grows potatoes and small grains using conventional and certified organic methods and says that if accepted into the program, he will focus on practices that reduce fertilizer use while maintaining yields and profitability.

“I think the overall goal is to increase profitability,” Whalen said. “Does that mean there are some trials that have lower yields? Yes, but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily bad. But we may need to adjust or change things.

“That’s why it’s good to have a network of growers, because if one person has made a mistake, there is no need for others to do the same. Every time you implement something new, there is a chance that there will be a negative effect will be. But if you Network with someone who has done it, you can learn from them.

“I feel like farmers, they tend to do what has always been done and it’s hard to change,” Whalen said. “That’s why having a network is so important if this initiative is going to make a difference.”

Whalen said he plans to focus on minimizing soil disturbance or tillage where possible, and introducing diversity through different cover crops. He will also integrate livestock into his cropping system to reduce fertilizer inputs and maintain a living root system in the soil.

Eigenbrode said participants will have eight practices to choose from, including things like no-till or minimum-till farming, interseeding, precision fertilization, planting cover crops and using livestock to graze on cover crops. Growers will then receive financial incentives to switch to the new working method. None of the practices are expected to lead to lower revenues, he said.

“A lot of farmers are very interested in these things, but there are some risks and costs that may be different than what they’re used to,” he said. “These (financial) incentives will make it easier for those who sign up to adopt these practices. … Our goal is to make it more streamlined than farmers may be used to.”

IAMP team workers will monitor and measure what happens over the five-year period. Nitrogen application, which is an expensive input for many growers, can be reduced by 15% or more while replenishing soil organic matter. These practices will reduce greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture and improve sustainability and profitability for growers.

“We understand that implementing such practices is not easy,” Eigenbrode said. “We need more information and we can get it through this program.”

Participants will “provide new knowledge to those who want to follow in the footsteps of this project – to answer questions that are not answered now. We will bring something to the entire program nationwide that will be of great value.”

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