Agricultural research shifts to the LONG game

As David Huggins looks out across the rolling hills of the R.J. Cook Agronomy Farm at Washington State University in Pullman, his enthusiasm about soil is tempered with a sense of urgency about the future of agriculture.

Huggins, a USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) soil scientist, is keenly aware of the squeeze placed on agriculture by a growing global population in the face of limited resources and a changing climate.

“At no time in the history of the world have we known more about our farming system and our understanding of soil, the atmosphere, and our crops,” he says. “At the same time, you look around the planet and those natural resources are being depleted and degraded at an alarming rate.”

A better understanding of the complex interactions between agriculture and ecology is necessary to meet this challenge. But developing that knowledge can take decades.

At the same time, to stay in business and be profitable, farmers are necessarily pressed to make short-term decisions based on market forces like the price of wheat, chickpeas, or fertilizer. Although having a long-term perspective is important to farmers, it can be challenging to balance that perspective with short-term needs.

A comprehensive, long-term approach to research can help. Huggins, an adjunct WSU faculty member, is at the helm of a cadre of farmers working with scientists at WSU and the University of Idaho on a decades-long research program to improve our understanding of the agroecological processes that take place in dryland farming of the Palouse.

Scot Hulbert and David Huggins at Cook Farm
WSU soil scientist Scot Hulbert (left) with USDA (ARS) researcher David Huggins at the R.J. Cook Agronomy Farm. Photo Zach Mazur

The USDA selected nearly half of WSU’s 300-acre Cook Agronomy Farm as a Long Term Agroecological Research (LTAR) site in 2011, one of eighteen locations around the country looking at how different farming systems might respond to weather stresses, natural disasters, or market changes. The LTAR designation comes with a nearly $1 million annual budget.

The LTAR program figures prominently in the ARS’s man-on-the-moon grand challenge: “To transform agriculture to deliver a 20 percent increase in production at 20 percent lower environmental impact by 2025.”

“The LTAR is really key to assessing progress with these challenges,” says Huggins. “How will we know if we’ve had this type of shift in productivity and environmental impact? How well did we do, what direction are we going in?”

Extending research far beyond the typical two- to five-year studies allows scientists and farmers to better understand changes that take place slowly over time, and that vary from year to year.

We need data collection and perspective over longer than usual time horizons to assess efforts like increasing the resilience of farms to disturbances like drought, and sustainably intensifying production, says Huggins.

In addition to improving our understanding of ecological factors, the project can evaluate efficient use of resources—from water to crop nutrients—and the economic performance of different farming systems.

“Our role as scientists is to try to quantify the outcomes of different farming systems, to look at some of the tradeoffs, so we can make better decisions,” says Huggins.

At the Cook Farm LTAR site, scientists investigate agroecological processes at scales that range from the molecular and microbial to the field, landscape, and atmosphere.

For example, at 369 georeferenced points on one 92-acre section, field sampling and instruments collect data on crop productivity, soil organic matter, soil-borne diseases, the weed seed bank, water quality and dynamics, carbon sequestration, and more for analysis.

Returning to these same points year after year will provide consistent data that will lead to insights into changes over time and across the landscape.

Huggins believes the future of farming will require that our scientific understanding of agriculture and ecology is aligned with the way society values things like soil, water, and biodiversity.

He stresses the importance of being able to assess one practice or another in terms of longer-term benefits or detriments, particularly when it comes to creating incentives for farmers.

“If we don’t have good quantitative data, it’s really difficult to put into context what’s worth supporting to reward farmers in the short term for farming in ways that help to maintain and sustain the resource base.”