Washington farmers and researchers are seeking funding from the state legislature to develop a better understanding of soil health.

“We do not have a comprehensive baseline or research plan to address soil health across the cropping and production systems of the state,” Chad Kruger, director of Washington State University’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources in Mount Vernon.

WSU, the state’s Department of Agriculture and Conservation Commission and industry partners are asking for $1.7 million each year from legislators.

Last year, WSU received $250,000 of the $1.07 million it requested. This year, it’s again requesting $1.07 million, plus $788,000 to cover the funding previously requested.

The funding will establish long-term experiments in different production systems, each of which has unique challenges.

“Soil questions don’t tend to be quickly answered questions,” Kruger said. “We know that there’s local needs, but there’s also consistent things we want to understand across the region.”

Researchers would ultimately provide growers with technical support to improve crop yield and quality.

Projects of this scale are fairly uncommon, Kruger said. It covers potatoes, wheat, berries, tree fruit and other crops.

“Soil health is good for farmers; it’s good for the environment, too,” he said.

The researchers are now defining a 10-year plan to drive research.

They’re proposing long-term sites in each production system, Kruger said. A Mount Vernon site is already in the works.

Assistant professor Deirdre Griffin LaHue, based in Mount Vernon, is seeking farmers to allow her to sample soil on their fields.

She will ask farmers to identify at least two fields — one high-performing and one lower-performing — and answer questions about their management history. She and her team will then sample the fields mid-season.

Growers will receive a soil health report for their fields with comparisons to other fields from anonymous participants growing the same crops, LaHue said.

LaHue plans to sample at least 30 fields for each crop. She has received interest from roughly 20 farmers so far.

Contact Griffin LaHue at d.griffin@wsu.edu and WSDA collaborator Leslie Michel at LMichel@agr.wa.gov.

Kruger sees soil health issues becoming more prominent in the national and global marketplace. The initiative would give farmers the ability to document their best practices, he said.

Many soil health tools come out of the Midwest and the southern U.S. and aren’t applicable to the Pacific Northwest, which has different soils and conditions, he said.

“If we’re completely dependent on these tools that have been developed elsewhere, our region is going to be at a real disadvantage,” Kruger said.

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