Project Update: Whitman County Cover Crop Symposium

The first annual Palouse Alternative Cropping Symposium was held on Friday, February 23rd in Pullman, WA.

Alternative Cropping Systems Symposium

The event was a great success with 80 people in attendance and six fantastic presentations from local growers who are experimenting with cover crops and cover cropping and grazing. In addition to the presentations the program included an interactive poll that addressed where growers get most of their information, soil health on the farm and what barriers exist for trying cover cropping. This event was the first of three Alternative Cropping Symposiums that will be facilitated by the Palouse Conservation District over the next couple of years. The goal of the symposium is to connect growers in the region that are experimenting with cover crops and to provide a forum for peer to peer education. This event was made possible by a grant through the Washington State Soil Health Committee and through donations from our generous sponsors. Sponsors for the symposium included: Pacific Northwest Farmers Cooperative, Palouse Conservation District, OTT Hydromet, Northwest Farm Cred Services, Viterra, Spectrum Crop Development, Clearwater Seed, Spokane Community College, Pearson Farm and Fence, Spray Center Electronics, Roots of Resilience, and Rainier Seeds.

If you are interested in participating in the symposium next year or you wouldlike more information about the event visit www.palousecd.org or contact Ryan Boylan(ryanb@palousecd.org) or Lovina Englund (lovina@palousecd.org).

For more information on this grant project, click here.

Washington State Soil Health Committee Grant Recipient Presents at Cropping Conference

One of the 2017 Washington State Soil Health Committee grant recipients presented at the Pacific Northwest Direct Seed Association’s 2018 Cropping Systems Conference Program in Kennewick, WA.

The Palouse Rock Lake Conservation District received a grant to purchase four, 48 inch AquaSpy Soil Probes. Additionally, they purchased a two-year subscription for a cloud storage service. The probes will upload data every 15 minutes via a solar powered on-site apparatus.
The purpose of the grant was to document measured changes in soil moisture, temperature and conductivity every four inches to a soil depth of 48 inches. This will be during a fallow season and after wheat winter was planted in the follow in the fall.
The equipment will document changes through the harvest of 2018.

A Year of Soil Health Projects and Progress

Five state-wide soil health projects funded by the Washington State Soil Health Committee (“SHC”) in 2016 have achieved excellent results. In late fall of 2015, the Washington State Soil Health Committee awarded grants to four organizations to conduct soil health field trials across the state. By September 1, 2016, reports were in for all projects, with initial evidence of positive findings.

These projects explored soil health issues in diverse geographic areas, from the forests of the Nisqually River watershed to small farms in San Juan County, from a vineyard and orchard in Klickitat and Skamania counties to dryland farming in the Columbia Plateau, as well as pasture lands across the state. New strategies for improving soil health were tested, documented, and are now being published and shared with farmers, ranchers, and resource conservationists.

Preliminary results in San Juan County show that biochar, when added to crop soils, significantly increases total carbon content as well as enhancing soil nutrient and moisture retention. When the crops are harvested in the spring of 2017, all indications are that there will be a significant overall improvement in plant productivity.

In Klickitat and Skamania counties, soil health has been significantly enhanced by adding a thin layer of compost to orchard and vineyard soils along with a cover crop to a degraded pasture. These soils have been tested using the Haney soil heath score and are measurably improved by the addition of compost. The recovery of soils in the degraded pastureland has been remarkable to date and will be monitored and tested in the spring of 2017.

In the Nisqually River watershed, forest soil health has been found to benefit in many ways from longer rotations and attention to conservation of topsoil. The Nisqually Community Forest will serve as a statewide model for forest management, with increased focus on the importance of managing forest soils through best management practices.

Finally, Foster Creek Conservation District developed a draft strategic plan and purchased equipment to instigate a long-term Soil Testing and Monitoring program within the Douglas County region. This new program commences in spring 2017 and will assess changes in the soil for participants in FCCD’s Direct Seed program. Two soil health workshops were held for local producers – one in June (in collaboration with Okanogan Conservation District), focused on cover crops and direct seed, the second in November targeting crop rotation. A copy of the Symphony of the Soil Educational DVD Collection was also purchased, and is available for loan to Douglas County producers.

To achieve these excellent results, the SHC worked in partnership with soil scientists and other experts from WSU, UW School of Environmental Sciences, NRCS, Nisqually River Council, Nisqually Land Trust, Nisqually Tribe, Northwest Natural Resource Group, Microbial Matrix Systems, Inc., Domain Pouillon Vineyard, Dirt Hugger, Forage, DOE, as well as the four projects managers, the Foster Creek Conservation District, the San Juan Islands Conservation District, the Underwood Conservation District, and the Washington Environmental Council. The SHC is funded through a partnership agreement between the Washington State Conservation Commission and NRCS.

Biochar in the San Juan

The final project awarded a Soil Health Committee grant is in the San Juan Conservation District, chosen to work on demonstrating the benefits of biochar in drylands as well as irrigated agriculture. Biochar holds many possibilities, from increased nutrient retention to carbon sequestration in soil and improvement of air quality. As biochar is made from woody biomass, the success of this project could incentivize forest restoration, providing a market for the woody biomass.

So far, a team of graduate students under the direction of University of Washington’s Dr. Tom DeLuca have been assembled to plan the project. Field sessions will begin soon, and additional funding is being sought to make the most of the opportunity.

The Fields of Underwood

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The third and fourth grant projects are headed by the Underwood Conservation District, as it first attempts to quantify the benefits of adding compost to vineyards and orchards, and secondly determines the benefits of biological tillage on overgrazed and degraded pastureland. Soil monitors will be installed to a vineyard and an orchard to measure the effects of compost on water retention, organic matter and beneficial microbes. On the over-grazed pastureland, a deep-rooted cover crop will be planted then assessed for soil quality and cost savings on feed costs.

Thus far, compost and soil monitoring sensors have been applied to one vineyard, and an orchard site has been selected and mapped. The pasture project is progressing well, with two fields divided into control and treatment areas, baselines soil samples collected and no till drill and seeding scheduled.

Into the Woods with the WEC

The second of five WA Soil Health Committee grants was awarded to the Washington Environmental Council for the Nisqually Community Forest Pilot. The project would demonstrate and champion longer rotation and forest soil protection practices. Such practices should create a slew of benefits to local ecosystems; from improved water quality, quantity of endangered species and increased carbon sequestration to improved forest resistance to drought, fires and insects. As part of their project, the WEC also hopes to distribute the Visualization of Ecosystems for Land Management Assessment (VELMA) developed with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Natural Resources.

The WEC is currently working with local partners to develop their forest management plan, which they hope to eventually share with other groups establishing sustainable forest projects, encouraging local landowners to sign on to the Nisqually Community Forest Plan. In light of the success and promise of VELMA plans, WEC is also working with the Department of Ecology to open up Clean Water Funds to landowners who employ sustainable forest practices.

The Direct Seed Workshop

The Washington Soil Health Committee is involved in all kinds of advocacy and support for groups doing awesome things across the state! In late February, we co-sponsored an event called the Direct Seed Workshop. Farmers, agricultural experts and concerned citizens came out to Hartline, Washington to hear local speakers remark on Soil Health, Conservation Tillage, Cover Crop Trials, and various other programs.

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More than 81 people attended the event–74 were, themselves, growers. The crowd was diverse, representing residents of Grant, Okanogan, Lincoln, Adams, Douglas and Kittitas Counties. Of the five speakers at the event, three are members of Washington State Soil Health Committee.

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Of particular interest at the workshop was the Farmed SMART Certification program. Proposed by the Pacific Northwest Direct Seed Association, the program, when implemented, would allow Direct Seed to audit Farmed Smart producers to improve direct seeding practices. The program is beginning on a small scale on irrigated farms in Grant County.
By popular demand, the Soil Committee will be participating in a Field Day in the Hartline area this July, demonstrating direct seed equipment in action. Stay tuned to the Soil Committee website and social channels for more details.

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