'If you have a love for the landscape, how can you not be conservation-minded?'
By MITCH LIES
In January, when Walter Powell takes the helm of the Oregon Wheat Growers League, the organization will continue a trend of selecting conservation-minded farmers as president.
And Powell may be the most fervent conservationist yet.
To guard against a loss of topsoil, Powell long ago adopted direct seeding.
In his role as district manager of the Gilliam County Soil and Water Conservation Service, he has helped fence many miles of riparian areas.
He counts among his friends noted conservationists former Secretary of State Bill Bradbury and activist Lloyd Marbet.
And Powell's wife, Susan Greer, is a program representative for the conservation-minded Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board.
Powell said he first came by his conservationist viewpoint as a youth working on his family's wheat farm south of Milton-Freewater, Ore.
"I remember stopping my tractor when I was 16 and watching the wildlife," Powell said. "If you have a love for the landscape, how can you not be conservation-minded?"
That said, Powell admitted it is easier for a small wheat farmer like himself to adopt and sustain conservation practices than someone cropping 1,000 acres. Powell farms about 350 acres of wheat, hay and canola.
"Would I farm the same way if I had 1,000 acres?" he asks. "I would hope so. I think I would.
"Would I be a direct seeder?" he asks. "Absolutely. I will go broke before I moldboard plow. I will put it into pasture and put something else on it."
Conservation issues are expected to be among the wheat league's priorities during Powell's year at the helm, particularly in relation to water.
The league is expected to be at the table with other farm and ranch groups as natural resources organizations work with state agencies and others in revamping the state's water-quality management program for farms and ranches.
"We need to find something that both works for the growers and will pass muster with the federal agencies and the federal courts," said Blake Rowe, CEO of the wheat league. "We've got some work to do there."
One change Powell expects to see in the agricultural water quality program is more reliance on data and less on narrative.
To date, Powell said, farmers, state officials and others struggle to validate the environmental benefits streamside improvement projects have produced in the nearly 20-year life of the program.
Farmers and ranchers believe the projects, which have included planting streamside vegetation and fencing riparian areas, have resulted in water quality improvements as streams travel through farm country. But the Oregon Department of Agriculture has little empirical evidence to back the contention, Powell said, and environmental groups are criticizing the ODA for lax regulation of nonpoint source pollution.
"I think there is no question that, long term, we're going to have to do more data collection and more baseline work to show that over time we are improving water quality, or at least not losing ground," Powell said.
In addition to validating the water quality benefits produced by the projects, better data collection will inform farmers where issues are present, Powell said.
"As we find issues, we're going to address them," he said.
"We're going to lead," he said. "This is not an area we're going to be defensive on."
Capital Press reporter Matthew Weaver contributed to this story.