Published: Friday, February 18, 2011, 11:05 AM Updated: Friday, February 18, 2011, 11:21 AM
SPOKANE — The federal government has awarded a $20 million grant to universities in Washington, Oregon and Idaho that is designed to ensure that wheat farming in the Pacific Northwest will survive climate change.
The five-year grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture will study the relationship between climate change and cereal crops, primarily winter wheat. Wheat is the No. 1 export through the Port of Portland, the largest wheat-export harbor in the United States.
The study will focus on northeastern Oregon, southeastern Washington and Idaho’s panhandle. The area produces some of the nation’s highest yields of winter wheat, which is worth more than $1 billion per year. The vast majority is exported.
“This research is important because our climate is changing, and agriculture is probably the sector that is most affected by variations in climate,” said Susan Capalbo, an Oregon State University agricultural economist. Washington State University, the University of Idaho and the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service are also involved.
Researchers will use computer models to study how different farming techniques affect yields, water usage, nutrient levels, greenhouse gas emissions and the removal of carbon dioxide from the air.
Farming can contribute to greenhouse emissions in several ways. Tractors and combines emit carbon dioxide, as does the manufacture of nitrogen fertilizer and the tillage of soil, which helps decompose organic matter.
Scientists will also ask growers about their management strategies and costs, to help evaluate the likelihood of farmers adopting new techniques.
Farmers won’t be willing to change unless the benefits outweigh the costs, Capalbo said.
“Agriculture has traditionally been looked at in terms of maximizing net returns or minimizing costs,” she said. “But we need to look at managing the ecosystem so it’s resilient to change and sustainable in the long run.”
The region to be studied is made up of different microclimates, but in general has cold, wet winters and warm-to-hot, dry summers. Scientists predict that summers will become drier and longer in parts of the region. More precipitation may fall as rain instead of snow.
The average annual temperature in the Pacific Northwest increased 1.4 degrees during the 20th century, scientists said. It is expected to increase 3 to 10 degrees by 2100.
– The Associated Press