Erosion on Eastern Washington wheat farms is polluting rivers and streams and needs to be slowed with better farming practices, according to state environmental regulators.
The Department of Ecology studied erosion across Spokane and Whitman counties this spring and reported Thursday that chemicals and nutrients used on crops are getting carried into waterways by eroded soils. The pollutants eventually end up in the Spokane and Palouse rivers.
“Thousands of tons of soil slough off into the Palouse River and Hangman Creek every year,” Ecology noted in a news release. “When this happens, farmers lose valuable soil, and rivers and streams become polluted with sediment.”
Washington state has water-quality laws that require landowners to prevent pollution of streams, rivers and lakes.
Though Ecology prefers to work with farmers to control erosion, the agency has not ruled out enforcement actions if erosion control efforts are not undertaken.
The agency has been tasked with cleaning up phosphorus pollution in the Spokane River.
Regulators have worked with local governments and industry to lower pollution from point sources, such as pipes that discharge into the river.
Now it is adding nonpoint sources such as agriculture and septic systems to its prevention efforts.
Erosion on Palouse farms has been a problem since the pioneers first sank plows more than 100 years ago.
Many of today’s farmers, descendants of the settlers who homesteaded the rich agricultural region, have become progressive land managers, investing millions of dollars to stop erosion of the some of world’s most productive nonirrigated wheat fields.
Now Ecology intends to use its own study findings – along with voluminous scientific research – to push more farmers to switch to direct seeding, in which farmers plant seeds into the standing straw and residue of a prior year’s harvested crop.
While direct seeding on a production agriculture scale still requires chemical use, the soil is only slightly disturbed.
The practice is proven to keep soils in place rather than washing in hundreds of rivulets to the bottom of hills.
Eric Maier, a Ritzville-area farmer and president of the Washington Association of Wheat Growers, said most farmers want to embrace direct seed practices. However, the cost of converting equipment can be prohibitive. It takes higher-horsepower farm tractors, new seed drills and sprayers to get started. The cost “can easily top a million dollars,” Maier said.
Even though wheat prices have been good during the past several years, asking farmers to break with familiar practices and machinery that have assured quality and profitable crops requires a leap of faith.
“We know that direct seeding is the way of the future,” Maier said. “We agree that we need to get there.”
Ecology’s study determined that some north-facing bare fields had lost 20 tons of soil per acre to erosion last winter alone.
The study of 400 farm fields in the two counties found that about one-third of available farm acres were direct seeded.
Pushing that number higher is now the goal.
“If Ecology were to come out and say you have to farm a new way,” Maier said, “(that) would be a big mistake.”
There are local, state and federal programs available to aid in the switch to direct-seed farming.
The Spokane County Conservation District, for example, has a low-interest loan program and expert consultation available to assist farmers, said Ty Meyer, the district’s production agriculture manager.
It’s the sort of collaboration that Ecology spokeswoman Jani Gilbert said the agency hopes can lead to changes and less pollution.
The other hurdle some farmers must clear to switch to direct seeding is the expectations of the landlords – many of whom are retired farmers or city dwellers who have their own ideas about what a well-cared-for farm field should look like.
“For some of these folks, that land leased to farmers is still their garden,” Maier said, “and they want it neat and clean.
“Seeing a field full of straw and dirt clods is not what they want to see … even if that is the best way to preserve their soil.”
Some farmers worry that harvest yields will drop if they switch from conventional farming to direct seed. However, many others who use direct seeding say yields actually increase after a couple of crop rotations.
“No-till and direct-seed farming are success stories in Washington,” Maier said. “We’re already working together. Nobody wants to see Ecology engage in enforcement when we’re already getting there.”