SPOKANE — Some Eastern Washington farmers will receive the same income for environmental buffers as they would growing crops on the land under a new program funded by the local, state and federal governments.
The Spokane County Conservation District received $7.8 million from the USDA Regional Conservation Partnership Program, which directs funding for conservation projects to improve water quality, enhance soil health and support wildlife habitat. Matching local and state funds bring the total to $15.4 million.
“This is actually a very big deal,” said Walt Edelen, water resource manager for the district. “This is really what you’re looking for to help out and benefit the landowner.”
The program includes a “commodity buffer,” which district director Vicki Carter called “a game changer.”
Producers would be paid annually for their land used as buffers along streams.
“This will pay them the same annual payment as whatever crop they have been in for that same strip of land,” Carter said.
Edelen said the district will use the USDA Risk Management Agency crop insurance model to determine payments.
“When you want buffers put in place, it’s usually your most productive land, and producers aren’t very interested in losing that ground,” he said. “If you really want water quality, then this commodity buffer will compensate the landowner at the same price they’re getting for their upland crop.”
Buffer sizes will vary depending on the type of operation.
“If you’re a direct-seeder or no-tiller, your buffer really doesn’t have to be very big,” Edelen said. “Whereas if you’re conventional, your buffer may need to be 75 feet.”
The project also includes edge-of-field monitoring of nutrients and sediment coming off the land. The data would be documented, Edelen and Carter said.
Edelen said he understands some farmers could be leery, but “we do have landowners who want to know.”
The project will cover more than 150,000 acres. They expect more than 300 farmers to become involved over five years.
A signup will potentially be held in the fall, Edelen said.
Farmers should fill out a form on the conservation district website to indicate their interest, Edelen said.
He expects an enthusiastic response from landowners, based on conversations he’s already had with several.
“They’re like, ‘Sign me up — why wouldn’t I do that?’” he said.