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The Northwest Sustainable Agro-Ecosystems Research Unit with Dr. Dave Huggins

Posted by Blythe Howell | June 14, 2021

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Contact Information:

Contact Dave Huggins via email at

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Episode Transcription:

Drew Lyon: Hello. Welcome to the WSU Wheat Beat podcast. I’m your host, Drew Lyon, and I want to thank you for joining me as we explore the world of small grains production and research at Washington State University. In each episode, I speak with researchers from WSU and the USDA-ARS to provide you with insights into the latest research on wheat and barley production. If you enjoy the WSU Wheat Beat podcast do us a favor and subscribe on iTunes or your favorite podcasting app and leave us a review while you’re there so others can find the show too.

[ Music ]

Drew Lyon: My guest today is Dr. Dave Huggins. Dave is a USDA-ARS soil scientist and research leader at the Northwest Sustainable Agro-Ecosystems Research Unit in Pullman, Washington. He obtained his PhD at WSU and has been working with conservation farming systems and precision agriculture for 40 years. His research specialties include soil carbon sequestration, nitrogen use efficiency, and soil health. Hello, Dave.

Dr. Dave Huggins: Yeah, hi, Drew.

Drew Lyon: I had to up that 39 years to 40 years here just recently. You’ve been here quite a while and doing great work I might say. I understand that the Northwest Sustainable Agro-Ecosystems Research Unit, which you lead, is in the process of hiring four new scientists, but before we dive into that topic, I wonder if you could give our listeners a summary of the research your unit has and is currently doing?

Dr. Dave Huggins: Yeah, thanks, Drew. Currently, the unit is grappling with research pertaining to sustainable intensification of agriculture and trying to define that, for one thing, is not an easy task but it involves a lot of different kinds of research, and it really, when you start to talk to talk about the positions we’re trying to fill, you’ll see how they address some of these various issues, but certainly, we want profitable cropping systems, and we still work quite a bit on just looking at field variations in yield and productive capacity of different locations in the field. We try to quantify that over time and have been at it now for over 20 years in some locations, and when we use our geo-reference locations across the field, they’re scattered every 100 feet or so. So, it looks like a normal field out there, but we sample the heck out of it from the standpoint of not just the crop itself but sometimes the crop quality, like protein if it’s wheat. We also look at soil characteristics with depth down to a meter and a half or five feet in those same locations. So, it’d be following things like changes in soil pH or the acidification of some of our soils. Also, as you mentioned, carbon sequestration and looking at how organic matter levels change over time. In this case, with a continuous no-till to less what’s been out there. Recently, a few years ago, we paired up a watershed, so that we have a comparison between continuous no-till versus what would be call the reduced tillage, or kind of a business as usual, from the standpoint of what many growers use, in terms of tillage and rotations. So, not only are we looking at crops and soil health, as you mentioned, but we’re also trying to quantify and characterize differences in water quality, particularly, phosphorus levels and nitrogen levels, as well as loss of sediment in some cases, and also, air quality, looking at some of the greenhouse gases, like I just oxide and carbon dioxide that agriculture is one of the main producers, in this case, of nitrous oxide production.

Drew Lyon: Okay, I know because you’ve been at this so long, one of the really interesting things I’ve seen you talk about is the temporal changes, so the changes over time, how these different things are influenced from year-to-year, and then, over a long period of time, which I find very interesting.

Dr. Dave Huggins: Yeah, just to comment more on that. One recent kind of surprise discovery has been looking at the acidification process across the field, and many of us are really familiar with stratified acidification near the soil surface, particularly when we start to ban nitrogen fertilizers under no-till systems with very little soil disturbance. But what we found was that there are some locations in the field that are acidified down to 5 feet, and maybe deeper. That’s as far as we actually sampled, and in fact, that type of acidification seems to be or prevalent under our business-as-usual scenario, and actually, it’s corrected with no-till. So, as we’re acidifying the surface, we tend to be increasing the pH of the subsurface, in some cases, down to 4 or 5 feet, which is interesting to me. And I think this is all driven by our field scale kinds of hydrology or where our water goes, and we get more infiltration with no-till, and it kind of spreads the more soluble bases around and kind of corrects some of those low pH’s that are with depth in the subsoil.

Drew Lyon: Those are the kind of discoveries that only long-term research can get at. So, I’m really thrilled that you’re able to maintain, have been able to maintain this emphasis for so long.

Dr. Dave Huggins: Yeah, that’s exactly true, and soil acidification is one example of that, and really, just what you’re describing, we didn’t see that. It kind of looked like it was happening during the first like ten years, and then, we could really see it after the second 10 years. And so, you’re really — it takes that long to see those kinds of changes, and the other kinds of properties that are good examples of that, as well, are soil organic matter levels and changes over time.

Drew Lyon: Okay, so, let’s dive into these four new scientist positions that you’re hiring. What are they?

Dr. Dave Huggins: Yeah, first of all, we have a cropping systems ergonomist/ecologist, and this person will have expertise in developing innovative cropping systems that are profitable and can mitigate and adapt to climate change and different kinds of weather extremes and provides, really, what we call diverse kinds of environmental services, in terms of promoting sustainable agricultural intensification. So, that’s one, the cropping systems ergonomist, and I’ll comment that these positions were selected because we saw an opportunity to bolster the kinds of expertise we here in the Palouse. So, looking at what we have at Washington State University, as well as the University of Idaho and kind of seeing where we might need a little bit more expertise, in terms of scientific capabilities, and that’s really how these positions were actually defined to begin with. Those conversations in terms of what kinds of scientists would really promote agriculture in the area, and that’s where we came up with these four different positions. And we only had four to fill. [ laughter ] We could probably fill with more expertise if we had more money. But remote-sensing is another one and expertise and utilizing what we call proximal, as well as, those are more ground-based or satellite-based kinds of observations to access crop performance. It might be trying to diagnose nutrient deficiencies or water use efficiency or water stress, as well as other factors that — in terms of other kinds of pests or soil and different kinds of management impacts that occur at spatial scales. And this whole area of remote-sensing, of proximal sensing, is going to explode. It’s the fourth revolution, as we like to say, in terms of digital agriculture, and we really need more expertise in the area of remote-sensing. The cropping systems modeler is a third position, and then, this position is supposed to work hand-in-hand with the other three, actually, and to actually try to develop and use more process-oriented cropping systems models that simulate the conditions that we find out there, taking into consideration not just the crop but the atmosphere and the soil and what we call the continuum of all of those together and try to model those. And sometimes, you know, our modeling isn’t the greatest, but it also tends to identify what we don’t know, as well, and to kind of fill those gaps or try to fill those gaps, in terms of knowledge gaps. But that position will work closely with the other three and myself too. And the fourth one is an air quality position. And here, we’re really looking at expertise to investigate and develop more quantitative kinds of measures of agricultural emissions, like greenhouse gases, and also, particulate matter that we may find with wind erosion.

Drew Lyon: Okay, so, four positions, and I know both WSU and the USDA-ARS have struggled filling positions over the last several years. So, this is actually, even though four isn’t a large number, in terms of our ability to replace positions in the last decade or so, it’s pretty good number [ laughter ].

Dr. Dave Huggins: Yeah, no, I feel, actually, pretty ecstatic being able to move forward with these positions, and I’ll say that, you know, in terms of the hiring process, we’ve just finished during the month of May, the interview process of a number of — well, 11 different candidates for this four positions. We have some outstanding candidates. I was really pleased at the level of expertise, and we have — to assess those different candidates, we basically developed what we call evaluation panels, and those panels consist of our stakeholders. And it’s expected that our research will proceed, you know, in terms of, considering stakeholder research priorities and be driven by stakeholders. So, we included, in this case, panels, for example, commission members from the Wheat Commission, Grain Commissions of Oregon, Idaho, and Washington State. Also, faculty members from Washington State University and the University of Idaho, as well as area farmers, and also, USDA-ARS people.

Drew Lyon: You mentioned that you want to have these people address stakeholder needs. What’s the first steps towards identifying those research priorities for stakeholders?

Dr. Dave Huggins: Yeah, yeah, great question, Drew. Really, from the standpoint of ARS and developing our research plans, we take a special consideration of what our stakeholder needs are. We’re kind of known as, at least, we’re trying to be a problem-solving agency. So, the first step in terms of developing a research plan will be what we call stakeholder engagement, and that will be going out and talking to people and listening, in terms of what kinds of different research questions that people have, as well as trying to identify what research priorities there are out there. So, a lot of stakeholder engagement, and that’ll cross all different kinds of groups, right, from farmers to industry folks to agency people and others. So, it’s really a way for us to try to understand what kinds of stakeholder needs there are. And quite frankly, I’d like to push this further and actually have partnerships develop, so that the stakeholders themselves have, you know, skin in the game from the standpoint of research activities and that we’re really attempting to co-innovate together. And I like to think that this kind of co-innovation process can really accelerate some of the knowledge production.

Drew Lyon: Okay, will this process wait until you have all four scientists on board, or will it commence prior to that?

Dr. Dave Huggins: That’s a good question. Ideally, we’d have all four scientists on board. [ laughter ] I’m not sure how that’s all going to unfold, at this point, but we could have all four of them on board as soon as this summer, sometime maybe late July or August, but we might start before that. We’ll see. If we can get at least two more on board, or a path, or three, then I’d be happy with starting to start that process, in terms of stakeholder engagement.

Drew Lyon: All right, well, it sounds like exciting things are about to happen in your unit, and I know I’ve engaged with your unit and found it to be very productive. So, hopefully, it’ll be even more so in the future. Thanks for sharing this great news with us and helping our listeners understand what kinds of issues you’re going to be tackling in the future.

Dr. Dave Huggins: Yep, thanks, Drew. I appreciate being given the opportunity to be on today. Thank you so much.

[ Music ]

Drew Lyon: Thanks for joining us and listening to the WSU Wheat Beat podcast. If you like what you hear don’t forget to subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcasting app. If you have questions or topics, you’d like to hear on future episodes please email me at drew.lyon — that’s –( You can find us online at and on Facebook and Twitter @WSUSmallGrains. The WSU Wheat Beat podcast is a production of CAHNRS Communications and the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University. I’m Drew Lyon, we’ll see you next time.

The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed by guests of this podcast are their own and does not imply Washington State University’s endorsement.

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