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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Brian Estes: Soil health is economic and environmental health

Brian Estes

Home to a diverse, vibrant agricultural economy, the farmers and ranchers of the Inland Northwest can claim a rich history and a promising future. That legacy is deeply bound to the health of the soil upon which we farm. The coming generation of producers and the crops they will raise will similarly depend on the vitality of our soils.

From the dryland grain production of the Palouse to the rich, green fields of the mid-Columbia, the Inland Northwest is home to many of the crops that make Washington state and its 36,000 farms the second most diverse agricultural economy in the country. This vibrant economy is, quite literally, rooted in healthy soil.

Facing what we know to be our declining soil health, Washington stands at a crossroads. More than an economic driver, the health of that soil also impacts human health and our environment. Nutrient-rich soil produces nutrient-rich foods, and soil stewardship retains carbon and even creates opportunities for carbon sequestration.

That’s why it’s time we learn more about the living organisms and activity occurring in our soils. Washingtonians have the opportunity to fast-track the next generation of soil health practices, sustain our farm economy and support agriculture’s leadership in fostering human well-being and environmental stewardship.

The Legislature is sending to the governor Senate Bill 6306 to formally establish the state’s Soil Health Initiative, a collaboration among the state Department of Agriculture, Washington State University and the state Conservation Commission. If enacted and funded, it will dramatically increase our knowledge of soil, and inform new farming techniques to support its health.

Representing 50-plus farmers and ranchers from 11 Eastern Washington counties, the Spokane-based LINC growers cooperative is proud of our members’ soil-focused stewardship. We are also placing a huge bet on the continued vitality of Inland Northwest soils. A young company, LINC’s farmers are making long-term investments, are focused on feeding Washingtonians, and are here to stay. The health of our region’s soils will drive our farms’ productivity and, consequently, our success as an Inland Northwest enterprise.

LINC’s member farmers are already leading this charge. On Lazy R Ranch in Cheney, the Robinette family has tripled the carbon content of their soil, improving the resiliency of their beef operation. Vegetable producers like Big Sage in Othello are pursuing fertility management efforts good for the soil and good for the public school meal programs the farm serves. These examples represent our farming community’s capacity to take leadership in addressing challenges of human health and a changing climate.

Last year, the Legislature invested in the state’s second long-term agroecosystem research and extension site in Mount Vernon, joining a pre-existing site near Pullman. This is just the start in an effort to establish scientific soil health baselines to measure progress.

The LINC Cooperative supports Washington’s continued investment in this work. If fully funded, the Soil Health Initiative will establish new long-term research sites in Wenatchee and Othello to capture two additional Inland Northwest growing regions while growing our capacity to identify new best management practices and get them in the hands of farmers.

Rooted in the health of our soil, this effort can only be a benefit to our farmers, to consumers who eat the food we grow and to Washington’s environment.

Brian Estes is a member-owner of the LINC Cooperative and its director of partnerships.

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