Writings

Can Data-Driven Agriculture Help Feed a Hungry World?

Publication: Yale Environment 360   Date: March 3, 2016   View Article

From Bonneville County, Idaho, to Buenos Aires Province, Argentina, tablet-toting agronomists with Anheuser-Busch InBev — the world’s largest brewer by volume — are visiting farmers who grow the company’s malt barley, a key ingredient in beer. These meetings are a decades-old ritual: Growers review contracts as agronomists offer advice on ways to maximize productivity and profitability. Only these days the conversations are increasingly steered by a computer app called SmartBarley that farmers use to log details on more than 40 variables that affect barley production, such as variety planted, soil type, and tillage method, along with applications of water, fertilizer, and pesticides. Growers use the platform to compare their practices and yields with other farmers who operate in similar soil and climate conditions.

The program is one of many agribusiness-led initiatives to harness the bits and bytes of data that increasingly are being used in agriculture worldwide to boost efficiency and profits, while simultaneously lowering the environmental impact of agriculture. Other agribusinesses that market data-crunching farm-management tools include seed company Monsanto, chemical company DuPont, and precision-irrigation company Valley Irrigation. FarmLink, which leases combines, recently entered the data game with TrueHarvest, a yield comparison tool that leverages data collected by its fleet of farm machinery to help farmers fine-tune their operations to maximize yield and profit.

For now, using big data to improve agricultural productivity is largely centered in the developed world. But sustainable agriculture and development specialists are working to expand access to important agricultural data to the hundreds of millions of small farmers in the developing world. Already, in an effort to improve yields and profits, farmers in places such as sub-Saharan Africa and India are using mobile phones to exchange information about weather, disease, and market prices. And these trends are only expected to grow as information technology spreads. Meanwhile, big data advocates argue that smaller farmers stand to benefit from data-driven agricultural advances, such as improved crop varieties.

How the Beer Industry Sustains Pacific Northwest Farmlands

Publication: BigLife Magazine   Date: December 1, 2015   View Article

The yellow blinking light where Idaho state highways 20 and 75 intersect signals “almost there” to travelers bound for Sun Valley. It hangs in the southwest corner of a triangle-shaped swath of farmland that affords big-sky views of high-desert foothills that bleed into the Northern Rockies. A nearby mileage sign reads Bellevue 9, Hailey 12, Sun Valley 26. This August, I pulled off at a rest area next to the light. The air was still and warm. The sky was dulled by smoke from forest fires burning throughout the Pacific Northwest. I was road tripping to learn how the brewing industry sustains farmlands that surround our mountain playgrounds and wanted to soak in the view of them from here. My phone buzzed. Grumpy’s for a beer? Sure, I replied. I’m at the blinking light. Almost there.

At the northern tip of the triangle, near Bellevue, the Big Wood River courses over porous soils. Much of its water seeps underground and flows southeast until impermeable sediments and rock force it to emerge in a series of springs. Some of the springs refill the Big Wood; others feed Silver Creek, a world-renowned trout stream. Dayna Gross, the Idaho conservation manager for The Nature Conservancy, explains this hydrology while pointing out landmarks on a tattered GIS reference map on a wall in the cluttered office of the Silver Creek Preserve. The spring water is clean and nutrient-rich. Wetlands and wildlife abound. “That is why we have these epic hatches,” Gross says with a hint of in-the-know cool. “People come from all over the world to fish here.” Rough calculations by The Nature Conservancy suggest that visitors to the 851-acre preserve contribute more than $6 million to the local economy each summer and fall.

“Barley,” Bill Coors is famous for saying, “is to beer as grapes are to wine.” Barley supplied to brewers of beers such as Coors, Miller High Life, and Budweiser grows on farms that surround the Silver Creek Preserve and contribute around $20 million to the local economy. The relationship between the farmers and environmentalists is uneasy. Sediments wash and blow off the farms and cloud the creek’s waters. Wetlands are scarce. The valley’s aquifer is sinking from decades of over pumping and, as a result, the springs trickle with less vigor and creek waters are warming. MillerCoors contacted The Nature Conservancy in 2009 in search of ways to help growers of its barley be better neighbors. Gross suggested a fencing and wetland restoration project on a farm along Stalker Creek, one of the feeder springs. The brewer bit. “It was a real success,” John Stevenson, who has grown malting barley for 43 years at his Hillside Ranch, says while standing in a tractor shed to avoid the sun.

For Storing Electricity, Utilities Are Turning to Pumped Hydro

Publication: Yale Environment 360   Date: November 24, 2015   View Article

In the past decade, wind energy production has soared in Spain, rising from 6 percent of the country’s electricity generation in 2004 to about 20 percent today. While that is certainly good news for boosters of clean energy, the surge in renewables has come with the challenge of ensuring that electric power is available when customers want it, not just when the wind blows.

To help accommodate the increased supply of wind, Spain’s utilities have turned not to high-tech, 21st-century batteries, but rather to a time-tested 19th-century technology — pumped storage hydroelectricity. Pumped storage facilities are typically equipped with pumps and generators that move water between upper and lower reservoirs. A basic setup uses excess electricity — generated, say, from wind turbines during a blustery night — to pump water from a lower reservoir, such as behind a dam, to a reservoir at a higher elevation. Then, when the wind ceases to blow or electricity demand spikes, the water from on high is released to spin hydroelectric turbines.

Flow of Cheap Hydroelectricity Slows in Parched West

Publication: NBC News   Date: August 2, 2015   View Article

As rivers and reservoirs shrink across the parched West, cheap sources of water-generated electricity are starting to dry up.

Historically low flows on the McKenzie River that snakes west of Oregon’s snow-starved Cascades, for example, forced the closure of a hydroelectric generation turbine at the Trail Bridge dam in early July. Two more hydropower facilities downstream of the dam are likely to meet a similar fate in the coming weeks.

Ban Bottled Water? Industry Scrutinized in Parched California

Publication: NBC News   Date: May 11, 2015   View Article

Thirsty? Drink tap water.

That’s the message being pushed in parched California, where companies such as Swiss food giant Nestle are bottling for profit water that they pipe from public lands, pump from the desert, and draw from municipal water supplies as citizens are asked to curtail their own water consumption.

“In a historic drought like we are having, it just seems like a really, really poor use of a scarce resource,” said Eddie Kurtz, the executive director of the California-based Courage Campaign which is petitioning the California Water Resources Control Board to immediately shut down Nestlé’s water bottling plants.

The campaign, he said, “is a gateway, an opportunity for us to engage people” in a broader dialogue about water management in California.

Will Huge Batteries Save Us From Power Blackouts?

Publication: National Geographic   Date: April 29, 2015   View Article

Glacier, Washington, is the final stop for coffee and treats on the Mt. Baker Highway, which ends at a ski area holding the world record for most snowfall in a season. The small town in the woods might seem an unlikely spot for a $9.6 million warehouse to store excess energy, but it might prove the perfect testing ground.

The area’s winter storms routinely knock out power to Glacier, home to about 250 residents year-round and more than 1,000 on busy weekends. Come 2016, its outages should be less frequent thanks to a shipping container humming with lithium-ion batteries hooked up to a substation that will provide up to 18 hours of backup electricity.

The two-megawatt system will allow Puget Sound Energy to study broader applications for grid-scale energy storage such as using it to provide power during peak-hour demand and to maintain minute-by-minute grid balance.

Can the Chesapeake Bay (and its Signature Blue Crabs) Recover?

Publication: NBC News   Date: April 26, 2015   View Article

Blue crab season in the Chesapeake Bay is just around the corner. To fill his coffers between now and then, third-generation Virginia waterman J.C. Hudgins is fishing for menhaden, a type of fish used for bait. What he’s seen in recent days comes as good news: clear water to a depth of eight feet.

“Ten years past, you couldn’t do that,” he said. “And so you know the water quality has improved considerably.”

The Chesapeake Bay is a 200-mile long estuary that runs from Havre de Grace, Maryland, to Norfolk, Virginia and is fed with waters streaming in from a 64,000-square-mile watershed that includes portions of six states and the District of Columbia.

Until recently, the bay was choked with nutrients and sediment spilling in from the 17 million people that call the watershed home.

© 2008-2010 Collected Writings By John Roach