By JOHN O'CONNELL

Capital Press

Idaho's West Side Soil and Water Conservation District has applied for a federal grant intended to entice more local growers to plant their fields in fall cover crops.

The district is seeking $214,000 over three years in Conservation Innovation Grant money, earmarked for projects that promote water conservation.

The grant would be available in one-year contracts to growers in west Bonneville County and southwest Jefferson County, where farm dust blowing from barren fields has posed a traffic hazard. Applicants should know by Jan. 31 if their grant is approved.

Cover crops are planted for soil health benefits rather than harvesting, lending organic matter and improving water retention. Diverse cover crop mixtures can add nutrients and natural fumigants to soil. However, the grant wouldn't differentiate based on number of species in a cover crop mixture.

Though growers can also obtain cover crop funding through the federal Environmental Quality Incentives Program, the grant would simplify the application process, providing assistance on a first-come, first-served basis rather than a competitive point-based system.

"If you can improve your soil while saving money doesn't it make sense to try?" asked Deb Nace, Natural Resources Conservation Service district conservationist in Idaho Falls.

NRCS soil conservationist Jesse Fullmer recommended the project and aided in drafting the grant. Fullmer said the funding should be sufficient to assist growers with planting cover crops on at least 1,740 acres. Growers would be compensated up to $41 per acre, with payments reduced if tillage is used with cover crops, thereby breaking up organic matter.

"It's one of those things that hasn't been done in the past and is growing slowly," Fullmer said of local cover crop use. "My hope is after these contracts are up they'll keep trying by themselves, with our technical assistance, and they will see long-term benefits."

Fullmer said the district also applied for $3,000 in grant funding to host field tours and workshops highlighting participants' cover crops.

"Even if we reach a small number of producers, they will reach their neighbors and say, 'Look what I've done. Look at the benefits I've achieved through this practice,'" Fullmer said.

Rick Passey planted his farm's first cover crop this fall to provide extra feed on cattle pasture, given the high price of hay. The grant would allow farmers to graze livestock on their cover crops. Passey, who serves as the soil and water conservation district's chairman, said limited water availability for irrigating cover crops could pose a concern for would-be participants.

Nonetheless, he predicted, "I don't think we'll have a problem getting the money spent if we get the money."

He said other growers will likely apply to prevent wind erosion from fields. Interstate 15 north of Idaho Falls has closed several times in recent years due to blowing dust, he said.

"We've been trying to find a solution to that," Passey said. "The one thing we have to impress on (growers) is once dirt blows away, it's never coming back."

Passey said the district is planning a soil health seminar for this winter.

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