Changing Attitudes Improving Farm Health and Productivity

Minimum-till field

Minimum-till field near Dusty, Washington. Photo: Dale Warriner/DNR.

I’ve seen a lot of changes in my 35-year career with the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), and it has become clear that changes which are sustainable come from changes in attitudes. One example is in the soil and water conservation arena. It used to be painful to drive through the Palouse after a rainstorm and see the severe soil erosion. Today, there still are fields that erode more than they should, but not nearly as many as in years past. These improvements came from changes in attitudes about the importance of controlling soil erosion for sustained farm health and profitability. My hat’s off to the conservation organizations that have made great efforts over the years in educating producers and landlords about conservation farming.

One of DNR’s early soil conservation programs started in the early 1980s when DNR implemented the Resource Protection Agreement (RPA) Program. The end product was a conservation plan on state lands developed through the joint efforts of the then Soil Conservation Service, (now, the Natural Resources Conservation Service), our lessee, and DNR to reduce soil erosion on trust lands. That plan set minimum standards for surface residue, tillage, seeding date, waterway and stream protection, and identified critical areas prone to erosion. Many acres of steep land were retired to grass, riparian areas were expanded, grass waterways established, and tillage reduced.

The successor to the RPA program was the Ecosystems Standards for State Agricultural and Grazing Lands that was enacted by the 1993 Washington State Legislature. It established minimum standards for conservation and protection of all land and stream types managed by DNR and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. The RPA program was a culmination of efforts by state land management agencies, state and federal and regulatory agencies, tribes, conservation districts, and special interest groups from across the state. It was no easy task to reach consensus with such a diversified group, but in the end common sense prevailed and a good product was produced.

Every agricultural or grazing lease issued today includes a Resource Management Plan (RMP).   By signing the lease, the lessee agrees to meet the conditions of that plan. DNR is flexible in allowing modifications to the RMP to meet a lessee’s changing needs.

On the horizon is a new deep furrow drill (seeder) for tillage-based summer fallow that is being developed by Washington State University. It allows retention of high quantities of grain residue and eliminates several conventional tillage operations to reduce soil erosion in the drier wheat producing areas of Washington. When those drills are fully developed and available, DNR will encourage its lessees to try them.

These efforts are, I hope, clear evidence that DNR remains committed to move forward and adapt to conserve state trust lands for current and future generations beneficiaries.

Dale Warriner
Acting Columbia Basin District Manager, Southeast Region