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A golden harvest near Oakesdale.
Photo by Teresa Hodges





Keeping the dust down

Pilot program encourages alternative tillage methods for former CRP land

March 2018
By Trista Crossley

For years, farmers have been able to protect erosion-prone lands by enrolling them in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). But now, thanks to a CRP enrollment cap, some of the most fragile soils in Eastern Washington are in danger of blowing away. A new pilot program in Benton, Franklin and Klickitat counties is hoping to help farmers keep that soil on the ground instead of in the air.

“In the past few years, we’ve had major dust storms that have overwhelmed the controls that are already in place,” said Brook Beeler, Eastern Washington communications director for the Washington State Department of Ecology (Ecology). “We are concerned that if the lands come out of CRP and go back to conventional tilling, it could make the problem worse in the future.”

In the past six years, the Kennewick air quality monitor has had seven exceedences of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) PM10 air quality standards. If an area has more than three exceedences in a three-year period, those exceedences have to be justified as an exceptional event or the area is put into a nonattainment status. If an area receives nonattainment status, it comes under enhanced scrutiny by the EPA. In Washington state, Ecology is responsible for writing those exceptional event reports.

In the evergreen state, more than 500,000 acres of CRP land are set to expire by 2021, according to numbers from the Farm Service Agency. In Benton, Franklin and Klickitat counties, more than 90,000 CRP acres are set to expire in the next three years. Due to an enrollment cap of 24 million acres put in place by the 2014 Farm Bill, it is expected that in Benton County alone, nearly 15,000 acres of expired CRP land won’t be eligible to be re-enrolled this year, including an area around the Horse Heaven Hills that was part of an air quality priority area. That area was cut to meet the enrollment cap.

While dryland farmers upwind of Kennewick aren’t the sole cause of the problem, agricultural activities have been a contributor to the exceptional events, especially as the area has just come out of a multiyear drought.

“We can write the report and get the values excluded, but the expectation is that areas are well controlled if it’s an activity that people do,” said Laurie Hulse-Moyer, an air quality planner at Ecology. “CRP has been the seminal program that we’ve been relying on over the last few decades. It’s one of the biggest participants in taking land out of production and keeping it stable.”

Seeing the potential threat, Ecology decided to focus some of the funding it had received from the Washington State Legislature in the 2018/19 state budget on helping farmers implement production practices that would best protect these erosion-prone soils. The department allocated $163,000 to the project, which will be administered by the Benton Conservation District.

“A project like this is cool because it doesn’t just benefit air quality, it’s also good for soil health, good for water quality and will benefit the farms,” Beeler said. “We see this as a win-win for everyone involved.”

Mark Nielson, district manager of the Benton Conservation District, and Heather Wendt, assistant manager of the Benton Conservation District, worked with Ecology to write the grant proposal.

“If acreage can’t be re-enrolled in CRP, it has to go back into agricultural production,” Wendt said. “How can we do that in the least erosive way possible? What options do these farmers have?”

As part of the project, a committee made up of producers from each of the three counties will be formed to advise the individual conservation district boards on what practices they think producers will most likely be interested in. Nielson said the hope is that if they can show that different options work and are economically viable, such as no-till, mulch-till or enrolling the land in a conservation easement, maybe other producers will adopt those practices. The funding will be allocated to producers on a per-acre basis, with producers deciding how best to use the money. Producers who receive funding will be required to meet certain requirements before payment is made, such as meeting residue levels after seeding.

In order to be eligible for the funding, producers must have expiring 2018 CRP acreage that is not eligible for re-enrollment in Benton, Franklin or Klickitat counties. Wendt has been attending grower meetings and reaching out to partners in the Klickitat Conservation District. The Farm Service Agency will also be sending out letters to producers who meet the project requirements.

Wendt said while the conservation district is preparing for a glut of land coming out of CRP, they haven’t given up on getting the acreage cap raised. Letters from Ecology and the Washington State Conservation Commission have been sent to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, urging the secretary to increase CRP funding and raise the cap.

“We are trying to work as a community here in Washington to really promote CRP at the national level because it is one of our best management practices,” Wendt said.

“I’d like to give kudos to the air quality division of Ecology,” Nielson added. “We often bump heads over issues, but air quality has always wanted to work with growers out here to see how they could help instead of turning to the regulatory hammer first.”