May 16, 2017
Writer: Nina Janne

Idaho is the third largest water user in the U.S. consuming 19.5 billion gallons per day of freshwater. 85 percent of that water goes to agriculture, that's according to research from the University of Idaho.

Ross Spackman is an Applied Plant Science professor at BYU-Idaho. In his Intro to Plant Science Lab his students are working on many projects one of which is irrigating mustard seeds. "Our findings will have a major impact," Spackman said. "If we can use less water or use water more judiciously, it's a plus in western states where we often times have limited water. If for example, we discover you only need half as much water at a certain growth stage, then you can use that water elsewhere. We can also save it in streams or reservoirs wherever it might be needed."

Spackman said as of now, the mustard seed yield is not as great as it could be in Idaho. "Evidence suggests that maybe restricting water at different times would give the same yield or better yield without so much of the plants energy going into vegetative growth," he said. "The research we are doing with student involvement is when to cut back the irrigation. We are looking at how much water needs to be applied and at what stages we might stress the plant so that it produces seed instead of vegetative growth. Then it becomes easier to manage, we get greater yields, better quality and at harvest time you don't have as much vegetation to deal with."

The University of Idaho says the Gem state ranks 1st in the nation in the production of potatoes, barley, and ranks 3rd in sugarbeets, peppermint, and onions. I asked Spackman why he and his class chose mustard seeds. "It's the same mustard you would put on your hotdog or find in the grocery store," he said. "It's a very tiny seed and grows very well in this part of eastern Idaho and up into Canada. They like cooler climates. It's suited for Idaho because we don't have the extreme hot weather in the summer."

Spackman said that he and his students will be doing this project all semester long and all the way up into the national agronomy meetings. "Thousands of students and professional researchers present their findings at these big gatherings," he said. "What we do with our students is we put together a professional poster that would be seen at a conference. Our students summarize their data and they compete with other students from around the nation in these poster competitions. The winners get a couple hundred bucks."