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Production Team Develops New Tool To Help Assess Regional Capacity

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Posted: December 11, 2013

How much food could actually be produced in the Northeast? It’s a complex question, and answering it is a slippery undertaking, because it depends on any number of weather, soil, land-use, and crop-genetic and management variables. One way to approach such a complicated question is to try to answer it for a single crop. That’s what members of the Production Team recently did, using one of the EFSNE market basket foods — the potato — as their subject.
Simulated potential rain-fed potato yield based on historical climatic data. Credit: Dave Fleisher, USDA-ARS.

Simulated potential rain-fed potato yield based on historical climatic data. Credit: Dave Fleisher, USDA-ARS.

“Census data indicate that in order to meet the demands of its consumers, the Northeast imports twice as many potatoes as it produces. For this reason, the potato is a good candidate to help us explore the capacity of the region to support increased self-reliance,” said Dave Fleisher, one of the Production Team members involved in this study. “Because so many variables — like water availability, temperature, and soil characteristics — contribute to the region’s production capacity, we needed a framework in which we could simulate potato production in the region under various scenarios.”

To meet this need, the team developed a sophisticated new geospatial crop-modeling tool called the Geospatial Agricultural Management and Crop Assessment Framework (GAMCAF). It divides the region into field-scale spatial units and combines layers of regional data — including historical climate, soil, and land-cover — with process-based crop models that simulate crop growth and development over the length of a season based on weather, soil, and management variables. Their ability to combine data from so many different sources allowed the researchers to simulate 30 independent growing seasons over the entire Northeast for potato, each with a unique set of variables.

Their findings, which are published in the January 2014 issue of Agronomy Journal, suggest that the region has the capacity to increase its potato production by as much as 41 percent over current production. “Our simulations show that water management could play a significant role in increasing the region’s potato production,” explained Fleisher. “Increasing irrigation, particularly in areas of the region where potato farms are typically rain-fed, could result in substantial yield increases.”

Modeling the region’s potato production capacity is just one way the Production Team is assessing the region’s capacity for increased self-reliance. The development of GAMCAF will enable researchers to assess the production capacity for other crops and evaluate climate change impacts. It also will help them to evaluate whether land-use patterns  in the region could be re-configured for increased self-reliance.