Almond production comes at a cost to the environment


Each almond requires approximately 1.1 gallons of water to produce. (Harsha K R/Flickr)

Almonds are known for a whole range of health benefits, however production of this popular nut (technically seed) comes at a cost to the environment.

California is the only state in the country that produces almonds on a commercial scale which amounts to 82 percent of the entire world’s almond production. However each almond requires approximately 1.1 gallons of water to produce. Furthermore, 44 percent more land in California is being used for almond farming compared to 10 years ago. This comes on the heels of one of the worst droughts in the state’s history.

The massive amount of water being used to produce almonds is being diverted from the Klamath River in northern California which is having adverse affects on salmon populations and creating other ecological problems. The salmon – which are swimming upstream to reach breeding grounds – could succumb to a disease known as gill rot if river levels remain low.

California produces 99 percent of the almonds consumed in the United States. The Golden State also farms 99 percent of the country’s walnuts – which require 4.9 gallons of water per walnut – as well as 98 percent of the county’s pistachios which need three-quarters of a gallon of water for each nut.

Despite the drought, this year California’s almond farmers are expected to see their most productive harvest to date, according to the state’s Department of Agriculture.

On the Radio: Climate change puts corn yields at higher risk


Ears of corn ready to be eaten. ( Michael Dorausch/Flickr)
Corn, the United States’ biggest cash crop, is facing threats from multiple fronts. (Michael Dorausch/Flickr)

This week’s On the Radio segment looks at a new study which highlights the risks facing Iowa’s corn crops caused by changing environmental conditions. Listen to the audio below, or continue reading for the transcript.

 

Transcript: Corn risk

The effects of climate change and unsustainable agricultural practices on corn production spell disaster for more than just farmers.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

Corn is the United States’ biggest cash crop, essential to products including meat, cereal, soda and ethanol.
This is why sustainable business consortium Ceres suggests that corn’s entire supply chain should be taking action to address changing environmental conditions.

Ceres recently released a report that provides guidelines for farmers, companies and investors seeking to preserve resources and increase long-term yields.

The study cites pollution from agricultural runoff, along with recent droughts and water shortages across the country that are predicted to increase. Ceres contends that these factors are combining to form a sizeable threat to the corn industry.

For more information about the Ceres study, visit IowaEnvironmentalFocus.org.

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Jerry Schnoor.

http://www.npr.org/2014/06/12/321218265/study-climate-change-is-a-growing-threat-to-corn-production
http://www.ceres.org/issues/water/agriculture/the-cost-of-corn
http://www.ceres.org/about-us/who-we-are

Cool July temps helped farmers now hoping for more rain


A corn field in Polk County, Iowa. (Carl Wycoff/Flickr)
A corn field in Polk County, Iowa. (Carl Wycoff/Flickr)

July 2014 ranked as the fifth-coolest July the Hawkeye State as seen in 142 years of record keeping.

These lower than usual temperatures have been beneficial for farmers in Iowa. The U.S. Department of Agriculture expects corn production in Iowa to set a record of 2.44 billion bushels, with an average yield of 185 bushels-per-acre. If this per acre number is reached it will beat the previous record of 182 bushels-per-acre set in 2009.

While corn thrives when temperatures are lower than average, it can be detrimental to soy beans. Soy beans require slightly higher temperatures than corn in order for the bean pods to develop. However, the cooler temps have provided a reduction in disease and insect problems for soy bean crops. Soy bean production is also expected to set a record yield of 3.8 billion bushels according to the USDA.

Even though this past June ranked as one of the wettest in the state’s history, a fairly dry July has farmers now hoping for more rain. Despite the lack of rain, it has not hurt water levels on the Mississippi River.

Iowa is expected to retain its spot as the nation’s top corn-producing state. Illinois is right behind Iowa with an expected yield of 2.22 billion bushels followed by Nebraska with 1.51 billion bushels and Minnesota with 1.34 billion.

On the Radio: Superweed spreads into Iowa fields


Palmer amaranth, an aggressive superweed found in five southern Iowa counties. (University of Delaware Carvel REC/Flickr
Palmer amaranth, an aggressive plant found in five southern Iowa counties so far. (University of Delaware Carvel REC/Flickr

This week’s On the Radio segment looks at palmer amaranth, an invasive superweed that has recently been spotted in five Iowa counties. Listen to the audio below, or continue reading for the transcript.

Transcript: Superweed

A new superweed that can now be found in five southern Iowa border counties may pose a serious threat to Iowa farmers.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

Palmer amaranth is an extremely aggressive plant that can grow up to seven feet tall in a matter of weeks. It has only reached Iowa in the past year, but it has been seen in Southern states since as early as 2005.

Farmers who have dealt with the weed report that it has significantly reduced their crop yield. The weed’s rapid growth and superior size allow it to spread quickly and outcompete other plants.

Research is in progress to determine if Palmer amaranth may be herbicide resistant. If so, the plant would join the ranks of 20 other Iowa weeds that are unaffected by most weedkillers.

Herbicide resistant weeds force farmers to use stronger chemicals and increased tillage to preserve their crops, tactics which cause concern among environmental experts.

For more information about Palmer amaranth, visit IowaEnvironmentalFocus.org.

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Jerry Schnoor.

http://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/money/agriculture/2014/06/22/superweeds-choke-farms/11231231/
http://www.extension.iastate.edu/CropNews/2014/0220hartzler.htm

Iowa farmer uses the sun to power irrigation system


A solar array (h080/Flickr)
A solar array. (h080/Flickr)

A farmer near Sioux City has turned to solar energy to power his irrigation system, according to a report from the Sioux City Journal.

Dolf Ivener recently designed a center pivot irrigation system that runs on a 22-panel solar array in his farm near Whiting, Iowa. The solar panels produce enough power to propel the system around the field while spraying water or fertilizer through its pipes.

While heavy rain and record flooding in the Sioux City area earlier this summer prevented Ivener from getting the most out of his system, he expects the innovation to pay off over the next ten years. Nearly half the cost of installing the solar panels was covered by federal and state grants designed to encourage solar energy use.

The agriculture industry has led the way in solar energy applications, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. Farmers in remote areas were some of the first to turn to solar energy as an alternative to kerosene, diesel and propane when grid connections were unavailable. A switch to renewable energy sources like solar could drastically reduce carbon emissions from farms.

Iowa fields are eroding at an unsustainable rate, study says


Agricultural runoff in Iowa (Lynn Betts/Flickr)
Agricultural runoff in Iowa (Lynn Betts/Flickr)

The rate of soil runoff from Iowa fields may be many times higher than previous estimates, according to a recent study.

The report, released by Environmental Working Group, shows that Iowa fields are eroding at unacceptable rates, depleting Iowa’s rich topsoil and sending sediment and chemicals into streams and rivers. Between 2002 and 2010, many fields consistently lost more than the sustainable rate of five tons of soil per acre from storms and other erosion events. A single storm in May of 2007 eroded up to 100 tons of soil per acre.

Much of the soil is carried away by gullies that are increasingly appearing in Iowa fields. These low channels are a telltale sign of high erosion, and are often refilled with soil only to be emptied again with the next storm.

High erosion creates high agricultural and environmental risks by carrying away Iowa’s rich topsoil and by polluting waterways with sediment and chemicals. An effective means of curbing this is to plant grass and trees along the edges of fields and in areas where gullies are likely to form. A series of buffers implemented in various fields reduced sediment, nitrogen and phosphorus by more than 90 percent in 2009.

Purdue University study finds improved profitability, sustainability in cover crop technique


Shredded corn stover. (Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center/Flickr)
Shredded corn stover. (Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center/Flickr)

Farmers who use cover crops as a means of soil conservation can produce higher yields of corn stover which leads to increased profits, according to a recent study by researchers at Purdue University.

Cover crops such as crimson clover or annual ryegrass help to “blanket the soil” which allows farmers to sustainably yield an additional 1.8 tons of stover per acre compared to traditional methods, the research finds. This stover can then be used to produce biofuels among other uses. One study suggests that corn stover can “supply as much as 25 percent of the biofuel crop needed by 2030.” However, over-harvesting of corn stover has been known to strip the soil of important nutrients.

Cover crops not only help to produce biomass through corn stover but also have benefits for the soil including reduced erosion even in no-till soil, reduced nitrate leaching, increased soil organic matter, improved soil health, quality, and productivity, as well as fewer winter annual and early season weeds. These techniques can be beneficial for both corn-corn and corn-soybean crop rotations.

The study was a collaboration between researchers at the Purdue Extension as well as Praxic, an Ames, Iowa-based software company. To learn more about corn stover in Iowa, check out the 2013 Iowa Corn Sustainable Corn Stover Harvest guide.