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ARS Web Site Story Got PNW Arid Cropping Story Wrong

Reaction from scientists swift; ARS changes report.

An erroneous U.S. Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service Web site news story which ran in late July stirred strong reaction among Pacific Northwest producers and researchers.

The News & Events story by writer Don Comis was in trouble from the very start with it's headline "No-Till for the Pacific Northwest? Not in Dry Years."

That raised lots of eyebrows such as those of Washington State University's Bill Schillinger who is he lead scientist of the long-term cropping systems study at the Ron Jirava farm near Ritzville, Wash., the subject of the ARS news release.

Annual rainfall at the site is only 11 inches.

"The ARS Information Office in Beltsville, MD., made a major blunder in their news release," he says.
The ARS writer put this story out without consulting the scientists or clearing it through ARS channels. He got the story wrong."

"We have five journal publications from the Jirava cropping systems project related to agronomy, economics, plant pathology, soil microbiology, soil water dynamics and weed ecology," he adds. "Our study shows that spring wheat is not economically competitive with winter wheat after summer fallow during drought years; spring wheat yields are low during drough in no-till and tilled soils alike," says Schillinger. "We're looking for win-win solutions for both producers and the environment with no-till and conservation-till practices in this study.

Ron Jirava, a progressive wheat producer who has worked closely with the WSU and ARS on the study for 11 years, is mentioned in the ARS article, as is Schillinger and other WSU and ARS scientists.

ARS issued a response to complaints over the Web story to the Pacific Northwest Direct Seed Association admitting that the article "contained some very serious errors."

A corrected version, with input from Schillinger and other researchers, was quickly posted on the ARS site at  

The new article, also by Comis, toned down the report saying "Planting annual spring wheat, especially using no-till, is excellent for wind erosion control in the low-rainfall region of the Pacific Northwest. However, in dry years it does not pay the bills."

That's acceptable to the scientists, who acknowledge that when low rainfall areas fail to receive minimal moisture, spring-planted crops normally suffer.

ARS acknowledged that the original article failed to undergo proper editor review, noting it the letter to PNDSA that the writer "did not follow our established clearance procedures, nor did he reveal to anyone," and that he had " failed to properly clear the story" with the researchers.

"As you can imagine, both the writer and his first-level supervisory editor have been reprimanded," wrote ARS Information Director Sandy Miller Hays.

Additional clearance procedures have been implemented to prevent a repeat of this kind of error, she adds, "to hopefully ensure that nothing like this will happen again.

"To say that I was utterly horrified by the release of the erroneous story is putting it mildly."

ARS releases no less than one story on its Web News Service every work day, "and we have never had a situation like this occur before," defends Miller Hays.

She issued a "sincere" apology for the original story.

Western Farmer-Stockman extends a special thanks to Schillinger for helping with this story.

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