OLYMPIA — Farm groups restated their worries Thursday that a new program to shrink agriculture's carbon footprint will shove aside other environmental matters such as mud and manure.

Washington Potato and Onion Association lobbyist Jim Jesernig told the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee that lawmakers looking to cut greenhouse gases shouldn't risk short-changing conservation districts that are helping landowners with problems as gritty as ponies deep in mud.

"Every time it rains, it's like flushing a toilet," Jesernig said of his earthy example. "You have programs in place that are underfunded or unfunded ... that we think have a higher environmental benefit or higher interest on the part of farmers."

Put forward by the environmental group Carbon Washington, Senate Bill 5947 proposes to give farmers money to plant trees, burn less fossil fuel and do other things to reduce carbon emissions. It would also fund an advertising campaign, as well as undefined "important research" and unspecified "new industries."

The bill's supporters include the Nature Conservancy, the American Farmland Trust, the Washington Association of Conservation Districts and biochar advocates. The bill passed the Senate, and its sponsor, Sen. John McCoy, D-Tulalip, says he's "mystified" by opposition from farm groups.

Farm groups complain they weren't consulted and are concerned a new program focused on climate change will siphon money from conservation districts and the Voluntary Stewardship Program.

VSP conservation plans have been adopted by 27 counties to prevent farmers from running afoul of the state's Growth Management Act. To implement the plans, counties need money for conservation projects and to advise farmers.

"What I don't want to have happen is $10 million to go to (the climate change) program and the VSP program doesn't get funded," Jesernig said.

Farm groups are proposing that lawmakers hold off passing SB 5947 this year. They suggest the Department of Agriculture and and State Conservation Commission look at how climate-change grants could supplement current conservation programs.

For farms groups, the goal would be to develop a plan that they and climate-change advocates could both back, increasing support from urban legislators for VSP and conservation districts.

"If this effort can get more support for all the different efforts, we'll be all in," Jesernig said.  

Carbon Washington vice chairman Peter Kelly, an agriculture economist, said the climate-change grants clearly will help farmers.

"It is not necessary to hire someone like me to determine whether this is a good idea for farmers," he said.

The bill itself does not appropriate any money for farmers. It directs the agriculture department to set up a program and describes in general terms how money could be used if appropriated.

Washington State University and the Department of Natural Resources would help the agriculture department. The agencies estimated setting up a program would cost $630,800 the first year. None of the money would go directly to farmers.

If lawmakers set aside money for grants, 5% or as much as necessary could be spent to "raise awareness." If the lawmakers allocated $5 million for grants, the agriculture department estimated spending $300,000 on an educational campaign.

"With conservation districts already struggling for enough funding to complete projects, why spend money on advertising?" asked Heather Hansen, executive director of Washington Friends of Farms and Forests.

Another 5% could be spent to develop "models to assist with the grant prioritization process."

Up to 20% wouldn't have to go to projects that reduce carbon emissions. Rather, the money could support projects "primarily related" to protecting watersheds, contributing to "health and habitat connectivity," developing "important research" and encouraging "the growth or development of new industries."

The agriculture committee has put the bill on its April 3 agenda for a vote.

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