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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

University of Idaho grant will help farms across Idaho adopt better practices for both soil and climate

The Palouse boasts some of the most fertile farmland in the world.

But there is concern that the health of that rich soil is under threat after decades of intensive agricultural practices.

Widespread tilling year after year depletes this natural resource in a cycle that releases greenhouse gases contributing to climate change, which in turn further threatens the viability of crops.

Viable alternatives exist, and some farmers are leading the way to what they hope is widespread adoption.

To help combat these problems, the largest grant in University of Idaho history will incentivize Idaho farmers and ranchers to fight climate change through more sustainable agriculture practices. The $55 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture will help farmers choose from a suite of more traditional techniques such as no-tilling and cover cropping, and newer applications including biochar.

It’s called the “Climate-Smart Commodities for Idaho: A Public-Private-Tribal Partnership,” and is led by the university’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. It is among 70 projects awarded nationwide for a combined investment of up to $2.8 billion included in the first pool of USDA’s Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities.

“It’s a really exciting opportunity to marry conservation projects with on the ground market forces,” said Jodi Johnson-Maynard, head of the U I Department of Soil and Water Systems, who leads the project.

The project involves three aspects: helping farmers implement these practices; research to quantify emission reductions; and how to effectively market these climate-smart agricultural products.

“It is a research project, but actually, less of it is research than is implementation,” said co-principal investigator, Sanford Eigenbrode, a distinguished professor in the Department of Entomology, Plant Pathology and Nematology.

U I’s grant will directly benefit more than 100 Idaho farmers and ranchers. Research will focus on the state’s staple commodities, such as potatoes, beef, sugar, wheat, barley, hops and chickpeas. The grant will drive climate-smart practices on about 10% of Idaho’s active cropland, preventing the emission of up to 100,000 tons of carbon dioxide per year into the atmosphere, they estimate.

Some farmers like Pat Purdy, farm manager of Picabo Livestock Idaho, have already implemented some of these practices for years.

“I wouldn’t even think about going back to conventional methods of farming,” he said.

In 2014, Purdy began experimenting with no-till farming, a method of preserving the soil by minimizing disturbance. Tilling damages soil by increasing erosion and harming its ability to retain water and nutrients. It also releases carbon stored in the soil as carbon dioxide.

Not tilling saves Purdy money and labor by not having to spend as much time plowing, which consumes lots of fuel. It also reduces wear and tear on his equipment.

From no-till, Purdy expanded to cover-cropping, which involves planting crops not intended for harvest in order to keep the soil covered and protected. Cover crops can further enhance the soil by adding organic matter and nitrogen, depending on the type of plant.

Cover cropping is usually done over the winter when the fields would otherwise be bare, but it can also be done throughout the year during fallow periods or as part of a rotation for livestock grazing, Eigenbrode said.

Purdy uses a mixture of turnips, radishes, lentils and winter wheat for cover cropping. He then uses that land for cattle grazing.

Purdy also strives to minimize harmful additions to the soil. He has eliminated the use of insecticides and fungicides, and has reduced synthetic herbicides and fertilizer. Instead, he relies heavily on compost from cattle manure.

The transition to a more regenerative system is not without its challenges, however. It requires different types of equipment, education and willingness to take some risk, Purdy said.

That’s why this grant will be helpful to farmers who need a leg up, Eigenbrode said. It will provide both technical and financial support to farmers to help them offset yield penalties that often come with the learning curve. As these practices become more common other farmers may not need these incentives, he said.

The Coeur d’Alene and Nez Perce tribes will be among the many partners in the project.

“It is our hope that the lessons we learn can help farmers across the reservation adapt their farming practices in a way that benefits their productivity while also benefiting the Tribe’s ability to protect the quality and health of its water and soil in the face of warming temperatures and increased probability of drought,” said Laura Laumatia, climate research and policy analyst with the Coeur d’Alene tribe.

The tribe’s forestry department will use wood from forest thinning to make biochar, a carbon-stable charcoal that can enhance soil.

Biochar helps soil retain moisture. It is critical to build this kind of soil resiliency as climate change leads to more droughts, Laumatia said.

Retentive soil has the added advantage of preventing nutrient runoff from polluting the watershed and salmon habitat, she said.

James Hanlon's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.