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College of Agricultural and Life Sciences
University of Idaho
875 Perimeter Drive MS 2331
Moscow, ID 83844-2331


College of 
Agricultural & Life Sciences
University of Idaho
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Boise, ID 83702
phone: (208) 334-2999
toll free: (866) 264-7384
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Coeur d'Alene

College of 
Agricultural & Life Sciences
University of Idaho
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Coeur d'Alene, ID 83814-2277
phone: (208) 667-2588
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Idaho Falls

College of 
Agricultural & Life Sciences
University of Idaho
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Idaho Falls, Idaho  83402
phone: (208) 282-7900
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Farmer in wheat field

Collaborate, Innovate

Photo: Courtesy Stone-Buhr

$20 million research project unites Northwest scientists tracking effects of climate change on agriculture.

By Bill Loftus

Keeping a Step Ahead
A new University of Idaho–led project will draw together 30 scientists across the Pacific Northwest to provide the most comprehensive look at the impacts of climate change on grain production in the region.

The work is critically important to the region and one of its strongest industries: agriculture. Wheat and barley production in 2009 alone generated $1.5 billion in sales in Idaho, Oregon and Washington.

The need to understand how climate change may affect our future is clear, said Sanford Eigenbrode, an entomologist in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS), who will lead the Regional Approaches to Climate Change for the Pacific Northwest Agriculture project.

The $20 million, five-year grant from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture ranks as the largest ever received by the University of Idaho.
Sanford Eigenbrode at Parker Farm
U-Idaho Professor Sanford Eigenbrode, left, and graduate student Damon Husebye check for crop pests.
Feeding the world
Predictions say Northwest winters and springs may be cooler and wetter, and summers drier and hotter,” Eigenbrode said.

"Agriculture may need to shift, sometimes dramatically, to remain productive. At the same time, agriculture is being challenged to increase food production to feed a growing population,” he said.

"Doubling agricultural production by 2050 seems an achievable goal,” Eigenbrode said. "Doing that in the context of a changing climate becomes a tremendous challenge for agriculture."

The project with Washington State and Oregon State researchers will enhance the region's research and education capacity. It will strengthen scientific collaboration among the region's outstanding land-grant universities, said University of Idaho President M. Duane Nellis.

"The Pacific Northwest is such a wonderful laboratory with diverse climate and soil types and the quality of its researchers at the three major land-grant universities. The fact that we're all working together is something I'm very proud of, and it moves forward our understanding of climate variability and its impact on agriculture," Nellis told the research team in May at Moscow.

The project will help the region's farmers and businesses anticipate and adapt to challenges posed by climate change. It also will help the region to advance understanding of agriculture in elementary and high schools, grow the graduate education pipeline and give public research facilities a vital new mission.

Field of wheat with text

Dream team

The scientific team assembled on the University of Idaho campus during finals week in May to formally launch the project.

Donn Thill, director of the Idaho Agricultural Experiment Station, welcomed the group to Moscow. He told researchers this project’s seeds were sown years before by leaders of a similar collaboration that ran for 35 years.

That project – STEEP or Solutions to Environmental and Economic Problems – drew widespread interest as a long-term, multidisciplinary project that connected directly with farmers.

Led by Robert Papendick, a USDA Agricultural Research Service soil scientist at Pullman, and Ed Michalson, an Idaho agricultural economist, STEEP targeted the region's alarming soil erosion rate and succeeded in reducing it by 75 percent.

But times changed and STEEP's popularity eroded, in part because it was funded directly by Congress.

"We realized future projects would need to win competitive funding," said John Hammel, dean of CALS.

Hammel understood STEEP's deep roots in the region. He earned a bachelor's degree in soil science at Oregon State. Then he earned a doctorate at Washington State working with Papendick on STEEP-related research.

He joined the University of Idaho's agriculture faculty in 1982, where he again participated in the STEEP project.

Once STEEP wound down, University of Idaho researchers began beating the bushes for new financial support.

A boon for students
Michael Bowers, the USDA Division of Global Climate Change national program leader, said the team's new proposal was right on the money: focusing on a major problem and devoting enough effort and resources to actually improve conditions.

"It is a significant investment by the agency and by taxpayers," Bowers said. “During the agency's rigorous review process, this team’s proposal stood out. I'm confident that this is going to be a very good partnership."

At a news conference, Hammel welcomed vice presidents of research from Idaho and Washington State, and his fellow deans from WSU and Oregon State, to a Moscow celebration of the USDA grant.

The project's strong support in the region reflects decades of strong collaboration among the three landgrant universities and the Agricultural Research Service,” Hammel said.

Those ties focus on research and education dedicated to get practical answers and to equip students to navigate a changing world, whether they're operating a globally competitive agricultural enterprise or pursuing a profession,” he said.

Vital work for Idaho
The regional climate change project is proof the University of Idaho is capable and committed to leading major research initiatives,” said Jack McIver, the University’s vice president of research.

The effort also links to a similar U-Idaho partnership with the University of Washington and Oregon State, creating a new Northwest Regional Climate Science Center. Its $3.6 million in funding comes from the U.S. Department of Interior.

It will fund Idaho graduate students and support advanced information technology to conduct additional climate change research in the region.

Additionally, the University of Idaho is leading a $15.6 million effort focused on the state's water resources, funded by the National Science Foundation through the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, or EPSCoR.

Von Walden, a geographer, the state’s EPSCoR director and a key player in the regional project, leads the water resources effort, and said the research project involves Idaho’s three public universities.

Added Eingenbrode: “Together, the concentrated horsepower will drive valuable discoveries, ensure the region’s agricultural viability and cultivate a rising generation of researchers who’ll know how to help farmers adapt in the future.”