By JOHN O'CONNELL
Idaho farmers seeking to curb wind erosion have historically struggled to compete for USDA funding against growers who also include irrigation efficiency projects in their applications.
To level the playing field, Ron Brooks, Environmental Quality Incentive Program coordinator with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, said Idaho has launched a new program exclusively for wind erosion.
Brooks explained the Idaho Soil Health Initiative, available to growers statewide, utilizes $900,000 in general EQIP funds to address the mounting traffic safety threat posed by wind erosion. During high winds, clouds of soil can blow across highways, limiting visibility.
The program also dovetails with the ongoing National Soil Health Initiative.
"It's a substantial amount of money. I would say folks have a great chance of getting funded," Brooks said.
The deadline for producers to apply is March 15, and contracts will be awarded on June 7.
The initiative emphasizes four soil health principles: keeping soil covered, disturbing soil as little as possible, keeping plants growing throughout the year to feed soil organisms and diversifying as much as possible through crop rotation and cover crops.
Funds are available only to farmers implementing new practices for their operations. Brooks said payments will vary based on a variety of factors. For example, most farmers who commence mulch tilling will receive $47 per acre, and those who start using cover crops can receive up to $59 per acre, depending on the species and the management technique.
Growers seeking to learn more about cover crops and soil health may attend an NRCS workshop from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. March 6 at the Shoshone-Bannock Hotel in Fort Hall, featuring NRCS soil health specialist Ray Archuleta, Idaho's NRCS agronomist Marlon Winger and Colorado potato farmer Brendon Rockey.
Archuleta will also be featured in a soil health workshop sponsored by the Idaho Wheat Commission from 9:30 a.m. to 3:15 p.m. March 7 at the Hilton Garden Inn, 700 Lindsay Blvd., Idaho Falls. Elston Solberg, the head cereal specialist and research agronomist with Alberta Agriculture, and Juliet Marshall, a University of Idaho Extension cereals pathologist, will also speak.
Keith Esplin, executive director of Potato Growers of Idaho, serves on a state technical committee seeking to address wind erosion problems.
"Some of the recent wind events in Idaho were as bad as some of the events of the Dust Bowl. Near Idaho Falls in some fields the top layer of soil has completely blown off," Esplin said.
Carrie Janssen-Smith, area resource conservationist with the NRCS in Pocatello, has heard from several growers that rising rental rates for farm ground are driving producers to shorten rotations in order to plant cash crops more frequently. She believes it's critical that growers lengthen rotations, perhaps adding an extra grain crop. She emphasized healthy soil is sustainable and advocates more research into alternative cover crops that grow in short seasons and use little water, as well as alternative tillage and planting methods to reduce erosion.
"We've had more complaints from the general public in the last five years (about wind erosion) than we've had in a long time," Janssen-Smith said.