Washington wheat farmers and the state Department of Natural Resources both support a Senate bill that would increase the notice the agency must give farmers before terminating a lease on state land.

Farmers and the department testified Jan. 19 in favor of Senate Bill 5051 before the state Senate Agriculture, Water, Trade and Economic Development Committee.

In the case of a “non-default termination,” the department is authorized to terminate a lease for “higher and better use, land exchange or sale.”

The bill would require DNR to give written notice to farmers 180 days before termination of the lease, and give to farmers written documentation of its plan for the land.

The bill is in response to a situation last summer, when DNR terminated the leases of several Benton County farmers. The leases were to expire in 2020.

DNR intends to convert the roughly 4,000 acres of dryland wheat production into irrigated land for row crops and orchards using its surface water right from the Columbia River, said Darin Cramer, manager of the department’s sales and leasing division.

The department terminated the leases for four or five dryland farmers, Cramer said.

“At first, there was no compensation,” said Michelle Hennings, executive director of the Washington Association of Wheat Growers. “(DNR) just said, ‘Oh, no, you have to do this and you get nothing.’”

Some of the farmers had already seeded the land, Hennings said.

“Communication was handled poorly with those tenants,” Cramer said. “We didn’t do as good a job as we should have. We didn’t notify them as early as we should have. We had some miscommunication internally. One hand thought it happened, but it actually didn’t. When we went to meet with them, as you might imagine, those folks were surprised and not pleased.”

DNR came to terms with all farmers, Cramer said.

“We did arrive at what we consider fair compensation,” he said. “It’s my understanding some of those folks didn’t think the compensation was fair, but they did accept the compensation and cash the check.”

Hennings said the offer covered costs, but the farmers were offered the option of accepting it or taking it to court. The growers did not want to take on the risk of losing the lawsuit and having to pay DNR’s attorney fees as well as their own, she said.

The bill is consistent with practices the department implemented in recent months, Cramer said. The department has begun moving toward longer notification periods, he said.

Farmers Chad Smith and Nicole Berg and lobbyist Diana Carlen testified in favor of the bill, according to WAWG.

Hennings said wheat growers have asked for advance notice of a crop year instead of 180 days. Cramer said that would be fine with DNR.

“We had fully intended to allow that crop year to be completed anyway,” he said. “Our lease said 60 days notice, but regardless of that, we were cognizant that we were already into the crop year and we were going to allow those tenants to finish out that crop year anyway.”

The bill must be approved by the Senate, House and Gov. Jay Inslee before it becomes a law. Cramer doesn’t foresee much difficulty in getting the bill approved.

Hennings said WAWG met with new Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz, who indicated she would like to improve communications with farmers. The Benton County situation happened before Franz was elected, Hennings said.

“(It) was very unfortunate and caused a lot of anguish between DNR and the farmers,” Hennings said. “We need to start a new relationship-building process because of this. We’re supposed to be partners because they own the land and you’re supposed to trust your lease.”

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