Carbon farming

Carbon Washington policy chairman Greg Rock, left, and Washington Farm Bureau director of government relations Tom Davis talk Feb. 7 in Olympia after a hearing on a bill to give farmers and ranchers grants to reduce carbon emissions. Once at odds, the Farm Bureau and Carbon Washington are united in support of the bill.

OLYMPIA — Washington farm and environmental groups have agreed on legislation to fund on-farm projects that reduce carbon emissions.

Washington Farm Bureau initially opposed it but now supports the reworked measure. It is the brainchild of Carbon Washington, a Seattle-based climate-action group that envisions a carbon-free future.

Carbon Washington’s original proposal has been stripped of implied criticism of agriculture’s reliance on fossil fuels. Left in place are grants to farmers for planting trees, growing cover crops, buying lower-emission tractors and taking other steps to store more or release less greenhouse gases.

“That language represents a year-long discussion among a broad stakeholder group,” Farm Bureau government relations director Tom Davis said Friday. “The conversation didn’t start well. There was a lot of finger pointing and rock throwing.”

The Senate has already passed a version of Senate Bill 5947. The Farm Bureau said it was too complicated and passed without enough consultation with farm groups. The bill is now in the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee.

The Farm Bureau and Carbon Washington are backing a rewrite that deletes references to farmers and ranchers cutting their consumption of fossil fuels to reduce “local and global pollution.” Among the groups supporting the rewrite are the Washington State Dairy Federation and The Nature Conservancy.

At a hearing Friday in front of the House agriculture committee, Columbia Basin farmer Jim Baird testified in support of the bill. Outside the hearing room, Baird said financial support could encourage farmers to plant cover crops—a favorite subject of his, he said.

“People see me coming and say, ‘Here comes Mr. Cover Crop,’” Baird said. “I personally like the bill because I believe it will be the first step in farmers getting paid for healthier farming practices that sequester carbon.”

Farm groups are not unanimously behind creating a new program. Agriculture lobbyist Jim Jesernig—representing state potato, onion and grain associations—said the reworked bill was fine, but that current conservation district programs already are underfunded.

Lawmakers shouldn’t create a new program unless they’re willing to spend the money, he said. “If it’s just empty rhetoric, don’t pass it.”

A recent analysis by the Washington State Conservation Commission concluded the state’s 45 conservation districts need another $17 million to meet the on-the-ground demand from landowners for technical assistance. Heather Hansen, representing the Washington Farm Forestry Association, said legislators could do more to reduce carbon emissions by increasing support for a program to help small-forest landowners grow trees.

“I can’t support a new program that would siphon funds from existing programs,” she said.

Carbon Washington policy chairman Greg Rock said he also doesn’t want money diverted from what conservation districts are doing now.

The organization will seek a one-year, $1 million appropriation from lawmakers for a new carbon-reduction program while also advocating for more money for existing conservation district programs, he said.

A new program focused on climate change could raise overall support for conservation districts among urban legislators, he said.

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