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A research grant will help Spokane area farmers determine what crops to plant to enhance certain soil traits.

The USDA Western Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program has provided a grant of about $50,000 grant for an ongoing project to plant crops alongside winter wheat, barley and canola production and bolster the soil moisture and protection against diseases.

Diana Roberts, extension educator for Washington State University Spokane County Extension, said the grant will fund the project for three years.

Five farmers in Spokane and Lincoln counties are cooperating and Roberts will be conducting some work on WSU's Wilke Research Farm in Davenport, Wash.

Funding won't be available until next fiscal year, but Roberts said there will be some work done this spring. That includes some soil testing to see if cover crops planted last year added any soil nutrients and seeding winter wheat into fields where the cover crops were planted.

Farmers will plant fava beans, crimson clover, flax, millet and buckwheat this spring in summer fallow to monitor the moisture levels remaining for the next year's crop, said Fred Fleming, a Reardan, Wash., farmer.

"People have always said, 'This should work,' but then nobody really does it to say if it really will work," Fleming said. "We're going to try to find out if we can make something work that would be brought into the mainstream of agriculture down the road."

Roberts expects the project to focus on companion crops or inter-seeded crops with winter crops.

"We learned last year that we need to focus on crops that will grow in this climate," she said. "We're a winter rainfall area, so doing too much over the summer when we're short of moisture is tricky."

Cover crops are grown without being harvested and are tilled back into the ground to add nutrients to the soil.

With a companion crop, such as a legume grown with a grain in the same field, a farmer might harvest both and separate seed afterward or spray out the legume with chemicals.

"Hopefully, the legume would still add some nitrogen to the soil before it was sprayed out," Roberts said.

Fleming said the grant will help mitigate the expense of planting the crops.

The next step is to fine-tune efforts and build on previous, unsuccessful research attempts, he said.

"Rather than grow a crop for our benefit, we need to grow a crop for the soil's benefit," he said.

Roberts expects to hold tours of the crops being grown as the project progresses.

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