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FARMER'S TOOLBOX

A spoonful of sugar helps medicine go down

A new Spokane Conservation District program aims to take some of the sting out of buffers

February 2017
By Trista Crossley


For many producers, buffers are a foul-tasting medicine they have to swallow in order to protect water quality. One group is hoping that a spoonful of sugar makes the practice go down a little easier.

In November, the Spokane Conservation District (SCD) began accepting applications for their new commodity buffer program, which aims to compensate producers for the value of the crops the buffers displace. The idea was hatched several years ago when employees of the SCD were meeting with other conservation districts and producers about how to work with regulatory agencies on the practices producers were being asked to implement.

“Buffers are the big talk out there, so we had been brainstorming, and we came up with this concept of needing to pay the producers what the value of that land truly is,” explained Ty Meyer, SCD ag manager. “For a regulatory agency or anyone else to ask producers to set aside their most productive ground when prices are low is a very tough thing.”

There are programs available to producers that will help them implement conservation practices, such as the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s (NRCS) Environmental Quality Incentives Program, or EQIP. But once the practice is in place, very few offer any sort of financial incentive to keep the practice going. That’s the gap the SCD hopes their program will fill. The idea behind the commodity buffers is simple, but coming up with a formula that would pay producers for buffers that was equal to the value of the crops they’d be growing on that ground took months of work. The SCD developed a matrix that uses a combination of a producer’s STIR rating (NRCS’s soil tillage intensity rating) and the type of stream to be buffered to come up with the buffer size. The crop that is planted adjacent to the buffer determines the price per acre with a $200 per acre minimum, and the program is built to take rotational crops into account.

“The beauty of this program is that rotational benefit in my opinion,” Meyer said. “If you look at the Palouse right now, garbanzo beans are making more money than wheat is, and producers are going to get paid for that.”

Seth Flanders, SCD riparian coordinator, is in charge of the commodity buffer program. He will be working with producers to track which crops will be planted where in order to update payment data on a regular basis. He said the goal is to have 750 acres of commodity buffers installed over the life of the project. Since November, the conservation district has received more than 35 applications. They are early in the application interview process but after reviewing the first five applications, they have earmarked three of them covering 40 acres and nine miles of buffers to kick off the program. Currently, the buffer program is only available in Spokane County, and producers can apply at any time.

Another perk to the program is that it has some built-in compensation to make up for the fact that the land given over to buffers is often some of the producer’s highest yielding ground. Depending on a producer’s STIR rating and stream type, the producer can get paid for a buffer up to 50 percent bigger than what is actually installed.

“The formula that we have has a little bit of weight in it because it is the most productive ground that they have as well. It’s not an extremely complicated equation that we have, but when you put it all together, it really makes sense when it comes out on the other end. The amount of dollars producers are going to get per acre is going to be fair or even better compensation than they would have gotten if the ground had been put into a crop,” Walt Edelen, SCD water resources manager, said.

Sister act

The commodity buffer program began taking shape at the same time as several other conservation initiatives, including the Farmed Smart Certification from the Pacific Northwest Direct Seed Association (PNDSA) and $7.7 million that came to the Greater Spokane River Watershed from the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP). The SCD was able to use data developed for the Farmed Smart program to set the parameters of the commodity buffers, and much of the initial funding for the buffers came through the RCPP via matching dollars from the Washington State Conservation Commission.

“RCPP was the perfect avenue to make the commodity buffers debut,” Edelen said. “It’s part of the proposal package for RCPP. We thought this would be a way to put this on the ground and see the results. And really, the only way we could get that funding was through RCPP as part of RCPP package even though the funding is coming from a matching partner.”

Charlie Peterson is the RCPP coordinator for the SCD. He said having the commodity buffer program as part of the RCPP helped them land the award because RCPP applications received more points for buffer projects. He pointed out that producers can take advantage of the RCPP money under the EQIP program to establish a buffer and then use the matching state dollars to receive a yearly payment under the commodity buffer program. “So it integrates very well with the RCPP and gets more buffers on the ground,” he said.

Although the commodity buffers are based on data compiled for the Farmed Smart certification program, producers aren’t required to be part of the Farmed Smart program to participate. On the other hand, commodity buffers can help producers become Farmed Smart certified. Edelen said the decision to use information compiled by PNDSA was an easy one to make, because the Washington State Department of Ecology (Ecology) had been involved with developing the Farmed Smart program and gave it their seal of approval.

“I don’t see how we could improve on that,” he said.

What’s upland matters

The buffer widths in the commodity buffer program are closely tied with upland practices that address erosion and nutrient runoff. Smaller buffer widths tend to go hand in hand with direct seed or no-till practices, but even some conventional tillage practices are covered.

“We’ve got buffer widths set up that are appropriate for the type of farming system being used. This is not a focus just on direct seed or no till systems,” Meyer explained. “Is there a benefit to moving towards conservation systems? Absolutely, but what the program is doing is addressing the fact that if you are addressing erosion and nutrient runoff and a variety of other issues on the upland practices, the need for large buffers goes away.”

Edelen said the fact that upland practices have a direct impact on the size of a buffer is something that agencies can easily overlook.

“They (agencies) tend to think that a great big buffer is what is needed on everything. Of course that’s not the answer. It’s the combination of the practice above it with that buffer that’s going to give you the greatest benefit,” he said. “And this program alone, whether it’s a 20-, 35- or 50-foot buffer, this will get more buffers on the ground then they could ever imagine.”

Finding the funding

The main fly in the ointment is, as is typically the case, finding the money to fund the commodity buffer program long term. Edelen anticipates working with the conservation commission on a yearly basis to keep the program going but acknowledges there are no guarantees. That’s why, he said, the SCD is looking into alternative funding from companies such as Avista or the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality, which would allow the program to expand into Idaho.

Meyer thinks that as the program expands and gains exposure, it will prove how valuable it is.

“I understand the McCleary decision, everything that is impacting our state with budgets,” he said. “But we also have a state that is very interested in the environment. I think there are dollars out there, put in the right places for the right practices to achieve the right environmental goals.”

Applications accepted

For producers who are interested in the commodity buffer program, Flanders said they need to fill out an application and meet with the conservation district. Applications will be ranked with certain areas being prioritized, such as Hangman Creek south of Spokane. The conservation district will also be looking at what kind of stream a producer will be buffering.

“Is your stream leading into a fish-bearing stream versus an ephemeral ditch?” Flanders asked. “Different things like that can also help in increasing your chances of being higher on the list. Once we start getting more applicants than we have funds for, we’ll really start hashing those out.”

Producers will also need to figure out how they want to install the buffer, what kind of buffer it will be (a filter strip or woody vegetation) and how they plan to maintain the buffer.

“With an approved burn plan they can burn it. With an approved grazing plan they can graze it. Or they can hay it, and that one would typically be the most beneficial for them. They probably already have the equipment to be able to do so,” Flanders said. “The only stipulation for that one is you can’t hay it until after the nesting season, so you don’t get all of the cuts you normally could.”

“We decided we could make this a new, innovative program that could turn buffers from being a negative into a positive and really help with producers’ bottom lines,” Edelen said. “We believe it will be in demand, and producers will actually want to do this. It resolves so many different issues on the ground, from environmental compliance, the landowners are getting paid, it’s less ground to maintain as far seeding and things like that. We think it is going to be an amazing program.”

Meyer agreed.

“This is the proactive approach,” he said. “This is not the reactive program where a producer has been issued a complaint letter or they have a problem already. This is a producer voluntarily walking into a program and saying, ‘I want to be involved in this.’ It truly is a proactive approach.”

What is the RCPP?

Established in the 2014 Farm Bill, the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) is a partnership between the Natural Resources Conservation Service and local entities that team up to provide conservation assistance to producers and landowners.

The Greater Spokane River Watershed was awarded $7.7 million beginning in 2016, which will be matched by 21 different partners for a total of more than $15 million. The funding, which will be spread out over five years, will help address water quality issues across nearly 4 million acres in Washington and Idaho. The lead partner in the project is the Spokane Conservation District.

For more information on the Greater Spokane River Watershed, visit the Spokane Conservation District’s website at sccd.org.