Washington State University recently released a "road map" for learning more about soil health in different types of agriculture across the state.

"Soils are complex and our understanding of them needs to be improved," said Chris Benedict, a WSU Extension regional specialist in Bellingham. "Current soil health support programs are complex, or they don't fully cover the costs associated with those practices. That needs to be adjusted."

Recently funded with a $2.1 million annual allocation from the state legislature, the initiative is a partnership between WSU, the state Department of Agriculture and the state Conservation Commission.

The initiative focuses on several production systems: dryland agriculture, tree fruit, the environmental community, irrigated potato production in the Columbia Basin, juice and wine grapes and annual cropping systems in northwestern Washington.

"The way in which we measure or assess soil health is either too expensive, too slow or too complicated, one of those three things," Benedict said. "Those assessments need to be improved."

The sentiment heard in farmer interviews and surveys was that newer programs should operate differently, Benedict said.

"Ultimately, we have to take relevant information and translate it and simultaneously make it applicable and usable by landowners," he said.

For example, according to the report, profit margins are tight and, while preferred, “resting” fields in cover crops or forages for multiple years is difficult between potato crops for annual cropping systems in northwest Washington. There is not enough land base for a five-year rotation, so potatoes are grown every three to four years, which is recognized to have significant detrimental effects on the soil.

To assist with this, the report states, growers need a rotational crop with good economic viability. The report also suggests inclusion of stewardship requirements in leases.

Existing incentive programs support landowners, but researchers received feedback that they don't fully account for the cost of those practices, and don't pay farmers to experiment with them, Benedict said.

He calls for increased awareness of soil health by the public and adoption of practices that improve soil health.

"This whole initiative is not just targeting landowners; it's targeting the people of Washington state as a whole," Benedict said. "Healthy soils benefits everyone in the state of Washington."

Researchers have difficulty funding soil projects because they can take longer than the typical two- to four-year funding cycle, he said.

The initiative will establish several Long Term Agroecological Research and Extension projects throughout the state, envisioned to run for at least 15 to 20 years. 

SoilCon, a conference in conjunction with the state's soil health week, is slated for March.

Goals and milestones will change as the initiative progresses, Benedict said.

"Soil health is a thing that typically, at least from an economically viable perspective, takes time," he said. "These sort of things do not change over night."

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