Two Important Bills for the State of Washington and Soil Health

Two bills have made it past the Senate and House in the State of Washington. These bills show that the soil health campaign started by Roylene Comes at Night, Washington State Conservationist, in 2014 has real traction and a new and exciting life of its own. A very special shout-out to Gary Farrell, the benefactor of the original Soil Health Committee, without whom it would not have lived and breathed and made a multitude of successful grants that have provided the groundwork, literally, for a new Soil Health Movement in our state.

As co-chairs, Lynn Bahrych and Gary Farrell led a volunteer committee of producers, conservation district staff and supervisors, educators, and state and federal agency representatives to invest grant funds from the state Conservation Commission and the federal NRCS in dozens of innovative soil health practices across the state from 2015 until today. The results of those experiments will be published by the end of 2020 and so far have been truly remarkable, thanks to the hard work and inspiration of those receiving the grants. The successes and lessons learned during these five years will be passed along to the committee in its next home at the Washington State Conservation Commission.

First is SB 5947 – 2019-20 which establishes the sustainable farms and fields grant program. 

“The legislature finds that Washington’s working agricultural lands are essential to the economic and social well-being of our rural communities and to the state’s overall environment and economy. The legislature further finds that different challenges and opportunities exist to expand the use of precision agriculture for different crops in the state by assisting farmers, ranchers, and aquaculturists to purchase equipment and receive technical assistance to reduce their operations’ carbon footprint while ensuring that crops and soils receive exactly what they need for optimum health and productivity. Moreover, the legislature finds that opportunities exist to enhance soil health through carbon farming and regenerative agriculture by increasing soil organic carbon levels while ensuring appropriate carbon to nitrogen ratios, and to store carbon in standing trees, seaweed, and other vegetation. Therefore, it is the intent of the legislature to provide cost sharing competitive grant opportunities to enable farmers and ranchers to adopt practices that increase appropriate quantities of carbon stored in and above their soil and to initiate or expand the use of precision agriculture on their farms. This act seeks to leverage and enhance existing state and federal cost-sharing programs for farm, ranch, and aquaculture operations.”

The second is SB 6306 – 2019020 which creates the Washington soil health initiative. 

“The legislature finds that healthy soil is a cornerstone of a high quality of life on earth and that soil health is integral to supporting agricultural viability, promoting positive environmental outcomes, and ensuring the long-term availability of nutritious food.

It is the intent of the legislature that the mission of the Washington soil health initiative be the promotion of collaborative soil health research, education, demonstration projects, and technical assistance activities designed to identify, promote, and implement soil health stewardship practices that are grounded in sound science and that can be voluntarily and economically implemented by farmers and ranchers across Washington’s diverse agricultural communities, climates, and geographies.”

Governor Inslee Discusses Soil Health and Farming

In March of 2017, Washington State Governor Jay Inslee discussed soil health and farming in the state of Washington.

“One of the great blessings of the state of Washington is our farmland and preserving it is not only iconic for the state of Washington but necessary for our survival economically.” Says Governor Inslee in his opening remarks.

If you do not want to watch the entire session, you can skip ahead. The section about soils starts at 19.28 and runs through 22.24.

Thank you to Results Washington and TVW for supplying the video.

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.

Final Grant Reports: Washington Environmental Council

At the beginning of the year, we awarded a grant to the Washington Environmental Council. The grant allowed them to study the integration of forest soil protection practices into forest management plans in the Nisqually Forest.

Now, after months of hard work, the WEC is ready to report their results. They have managed to draft a Community Forest Management Plan which includes measures that will: 1) shift away from clear-cut harvests towards management through ecological thinning; 2) grow older, structurally complex forests, increasing woody debris and organic soil layers; 3) identify and avoid disturbing areas with highly erodible soils; 4) maintain road networks and culverts to the highest standard; and 5) use low impact logging techniques during thinning operations.

Review the Washington Environmental Council’s full report here, and come to the WACD’s annual meeting this November to hear WA State Soil Health Committee’s full report on all of our grant projects.

Soil Committee to Attend WA Association of Conservation Districts Annual Meeting

Each year, the Washington State Soil Health Committee awards a number of grants for projects in our state seeking the sustainable advancement of soil health. Many of these grants are awarded to Conservation Districts around Washington State. Truly, Washington’s Conservation Districts make invaluable partners in the soil health revolution. The WA Soil Committee is proud to attend the WA Association of Conservation Districts Annual Meeting this November to meet with the people doing amazing things in conservation districts around the state. We will also be presenting on this year’s five grant projects. The Annual Meeting will be held November 28-30 at Semiahmoo Resort in Blaine, WA. For more information and to register for the conference, visit the WACD website.

The WA State Soil Health Committee Attends the First Soil Health Institute Annual Meeting

At the end of July, more than 130 soil health experts convened in Louisville, Kentucky to brainstorm about the future of soil health research. Of the many scientists, university specialists, farmers, experts, and NGO leaders in attendance, the WA State Soil Health Committee was the only state soil committee invited to attend!

Ultimately, the conference aimed to identify key areas of research and standards of measurement that could then form convincing, relevant, scientifically grounded recommendations for policy makers and agricultural producers.

The convention marked the first annual meeting of the Soil Health Institute, an organization headed by Dr. Wayne Honeycutt whose mission is “to safeguard and enhance the vitality and productivity of the soil.”

WA State Soil Health Committee representative Gary Farrell was thrilled to be among the ranks of soil health advocates unifying behind basic soil health goals. Those goals include conducting a national assessment of soil health, identifying research gaps regarding the relationship between crop rotations and microbial soil health, creating a “digital decision support tool that enables growers to anticipate which soil amendments and crop rotations will have the greatest impact on a field’s annual return.”

For more information about the Soil Health Institute and their first annual meeting, check out their press release about the event, here.

What’s Up in Underwood?

One of the WA State Soil Committee’s yearly grants this year went to the Underwood Conservation District for the purpose of quantifying the benefits of adding compost to vineyards and orchards, as well as determining the benefits of biological tillage on overgrazed and degraded pastureland. Now, we have a promising video update from Underwood! Take a look at their progress.

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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