And the last shall be first.
Washington’s wheat growers have gone from being last in percentage of acreage in a federal environmental program last spring to being the state with the highest acceptance rate in the nation.
With 483,918 of 591,217 acres - 82 percent - accepted into the nation’s largest private land conservation program, hundreds of Washington’s farm owners will get federal money to leave fragile portions of their fields in a natural state for 10 years.
Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman announced the results of the latest Conservation Reserve Program sign-up Thursday in Olympia.
For their efforts to prevent soil erosion and provide wildlife habitat, farmers nationwide will be paid an average of $45 an acre, which is still about $4.50 per acre less than the historic average, Glickman said.
The high rate of acceptance is welcome news. Last spring, when only 21 percent of the land offered was approved, many farmers were frustrated and dismayed. Their neighbors in Idaho and Oregon had 80 percent approval rates. Washington growers had to decide whether to farm the land that wasn’t accepted or try again to get it into CRP in the fall sign-up.
Even though brothers Bret and Dan Blankenship, who grow wheat near Washtucna, spent three days last spring at their local Farm Service Agency trying to register their land, their application was rejected. Trying to put land in the CRP program had been an exercise in frustration for them.
But they and several hundred other farmers thought it was worth trying again. This time the sign-up operated under new rules and requirements, with a new focus on wind erosion, volcanic ash and wildlife habitat.
“It has been confusing,” Dan Blankenship said. “But there was some ground that we had some weed problems with and the dollars and cents looked like it would be worth it to try again.”
The Blankenship brothers agreed to plant certain grasses and shrubs on the land admitted to the CRP program and to take steps to encourage wildlife.
Their efforts may have paid off. In Adams County, 80 percent of the 100,000 acres of land offered was admitted into the program. They and other growers should know their specific results by mail within a few days.
To go from last to first seems phenomenal, but to Washington’s farmers and politicians it seems only fair.
“I assume that they applied the rules fairly in this sign-up and they were more fairly applied than in the last sign-up,” said Rep. George Nethercutt.
Washington’s applications may have gotten more attention this time than they did before, simply because of the clamor that came after the poor results last spring.
“I promised growers in our state I would do everything I could to fix this problem,” Sen. Patty Murray said in a release. “Last year was a nightmare for our growers.”
Also, wheat farmers and their representatives inundated the USDA with questions and complaints about the failed sign-ups. This time the federal agency paid close attention to the sign-up.
“I think it’s because the farmers took an interest,” said Larry Albin, state executive director of the Farm Service Agency. “On the other side of it, the secretary (Glickman) and his staff made sure the air quality (considerations) worked right.”
After Glickman visited Eastern Washington this summer to see why farmers felt they had been overlooked, the U.S. Department of Agriculture made some changes to the CRP application to account for wind erosion, volcanic ash and air quality.
Out of 9.5 million acres offered nationwide, just 5.9 million were accepted.
The new enrollment brings the total amount of land in CRP to 29.9 million acres by Oct. 1.
While Washington fared the best, Oregon and Idaho had 72 percent and 75 percent approval rates respectively. Each offered less than 85,000 acres.
Of Washington’s accepted acres in this sign-up, 327,535 had been rejected last spring. With the newly accepted acres, Washington’s total CRP acreage is 900,887.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Graphic: Preserving fragile farmland
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: CRP ACCEPTANCE Acres offered by farmers and acres accepted by the Agriculture Department for the 16th sign-up of the Conservation Reserve Program: Washington - 591,217; 483,918 Idaho - 84,087; 63,299 Oregon - 82,945; 60,135 Montana - 1,079,134; 739,920.