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May 2009: Agricultural Notes

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Growing Grains : Plant Nitrogen Use and Global Warming

Growing Grains

In her article “In the Wheat Fields of Kenya, a Budding Epidemic” Sharon Schmickle warns of the major threat to grain agriculture posed by a resilient form of Stem Rust, a fungus farmers thought they eliminated over 50 years ago. According to the article, stem rust fungus “surfaced here in 1999, jumped the Red Sea to Yemen in 2006 and turned up in Iran last year. Crop scientists say they are powerless to stop its spread and increasingly frustrated in their efforts to find resistant plants. Nobel Peace laureate Norman Borlaug, the world's leading authority on the disease, said that once established, stem rust can explode to crisis proportions within a year under certain weather conditions. ... Eighty percent of Asian and African wheat varieties are now susceptible, and so is barley, FAO experts said. Scientists named the new menace Ug99 for its discovery in Uganda in 1999.”                                                                                                                                    

On the other side of this issue, an uplifting article by Dean Hulse,  published in an issue of The Land Report in 2002, tells the story of a remarkable discovery of a Midwest grain farmer and his own bout with stem rust. In the mid-1930s a farmer by the name of Sam Lykken had 20 acres of barley, planted only to have those plants stricken with stem rust before they seeded, leaving the crop stunted and unharvestable. It was this agrarian's habit to walk his fields after supper, and in the midst of 20 acres of ruined barley he found one green survivor. That single plant yielded eighteen kernels and Lykken donated some of his precious rust-resistant barley to agronomists at the North Dakota Agricultural College for use in testing and breeding. By the 1940s it became available to other Midwestern farmers and was named Kindred after Lykken's hometown.


Plant Nitrogen Use and Global Warming

    According to geoscientists, growers concerned about global warming should be carefully considering their food, fuel, feed and landscape plants. In an article published in the September-October 2008 HortIdeas Newsletter, the focus is on “The Plant Nitrogen Use-Global Warming Connection”. The article highlights the research of geoscientists, which concludes that  the intensity of nitrogen uptake and a plant’s overall nitrogen requirements have a direct connection to the level of nitrous oxide emitted by the plant. The higher a plant’s need for nitrogen, the more gas it releases into the atmosphere. Nitrous oxide is a greenhouse gas with a 100-year average global warming potential which according to the article is nearly 300 times that of carbon dioxide, pound for pound. Geoscientists believe this research may have dramatic implications in the biofuels debate. For instance ethanol—whose aim is to reduce carbon dioxide emissions—may even cause net gains in greenhouse gases. This is because corn—one of the major grains used in the production of ethanol—has high nitrogen requirements. For more information the primary resource for the HortIdeas article is cited as Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics Discussions and can be found on the web at




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