Seeds of Success: Lessees Key to Long-Term Sustainability of Farm Lands

Lessees promote sustainable farming techniques

Photo: DNR

The morning is warm and clear, but for the slight haze of dust from combines crawling their way across a sea of golden wheat. As I pull into the neatly kept homestead, I wonder what today’s visit will bring. I am new to the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), having accepted a position as Range and Lease Specialist out of the Ephrata field office. Here, fields of summer fallow and dryland wheat are met by lush orchards and vineyards, all interspersed with sagebrush steppe. The mixed grass prairie, corn, and soybeans of my native South Dakota are so different, and yet so much the same. 

I hop out of my pick-up and am instantly met with a wet, black nose, nearly reaching my chest. The large brown eyes of a German Shepard meet my gaze. I can tell by his stance he has already deemed me harmless. I offer a pat on his head, and he offers a tepid wag of his tail before trotting off. Next, I am greeted by the big smile, reaching hands, and teetering steps of a young girl. Her grandma is hot on her tracks though, taking her hand before she stumbles on the course gravel of the parking area. We engage in light small-talk, and then she points me towards the machine shed.

Inside, I meet with Mike and Tom Heer. They have three expiring dryland wheat and Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) leases with DNR. Meticulously, we comb through maps as they point out each piece of ground enrolled in CRP. Next we are off for a tour. Tom and Mike tell me about the homestead their father once lived at on a DNR parcel. Tom tells me about the yearly soil testing that they conduct, and Mike tells me about the wheat varieties they planted this year.

I ask as many questions as I can think of. What is the difference between soft white wheat, and hard red wheat? What varieties do you grow? How do you prepare the seedbed? Both Mike and Tom happily oblige me. I know it is not enough, these few questions. The knowledge they have of this land is only come by through years of hard work. I am beginning to understand that dryland wheat production takes lots of skill, some risk, and maybe a pinch of luck. As we drive, the Heer brothers point out the patches of CRP. Each one is working just as it was meant to, one protecting a steep draw from erosion, another placed on a hilltop with shallow soils.

Photo: DNR

Photo: DNR

Our conversation turns to the pygmy rabbit colonies located not far from their property. Mike and Tom tell me about the Safe Harbor agreement they have with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. They tell me how they like keeping up with industry changes, and how they even enjoy reading The Dirt. Our conversation winds down. I need to get back to the office, and they need to get back to the field. We return to the farm yard where we exchange contact information and firm handshakes.

Back in my truck, I find a new sense of eagerness and purpose. I have so much to learn, but I am on my way to a career supporting and encouraging good trust land stewards like the Heer brothers. I cannot help but wonder about the future of these public lands. Who will be our next generation of land stewards? Who will greet me at the door in ten years? I can only hope that they have as much pride in and commitment to our public lands as the Heer brothers.

I think back to the small girl, her tiny hands reaching out to me in greeting. In no short time, she will be starting school in a building that her grandfather and great uncle helped build by harvesting wheat grown on state trust lands. Perhaps one day she will meet me at the gate, her own small children playing in the shade, and we will sit and talk once more about her DNR leases, the CRP contracts, wheat yields, and new varieties, as I once did with her grandfather.

The summer is drawing to a close here in eastern Washington. Fields that were once brown in fallow now brighten with the green of next year’s dryland wheat crop. I have spent the summer meeting with lessees who are very much like the Heer brothers. Each has a history of leasing DNR lands and each is devoted to the sustainable management of State trust land. Together, we are perpetuating Washington’s natural heritage while supporting public trusts. The relationships we grow in the field are harvested in the community of lessees dedicated to conservation, stewardship, and sustainability.

by Emma Barnett, DNR Southeast Region

Trust Land Replacement Property in the Blues, 10 Years Later

State Trust Land

Photo: DNR

When DNR determines that a property is no longer suitable for long-term state trust ownership and management, it may be sold at public auction or made available for other government agencies to purchase. The proceeds from the sales of these lands go into the trust land replacement account (in sales of forested trust lands the value of standing timber goes to the beneficiary while the real estate value is deposited to the replacement account). It is the job of DNR land managers to continually be on the lookout for replacement properties that are suitable for long-term state trust ownership and management.

Approximately ten years ago, two privately-owned parcels in DNR’s Dayton Unit near the Blue Mountains were identified as potential replacement properties for the Common School Trust. At the time, both parcels – one in Garfield County and the other in Columbia County – were farmed as dryland agriculture. Recently, DNR completed its first re-lease negotiations on both properties. Let’s look back and evaluate these replacement properties and how they performed under DNR management over the past decade.

DNR received bonus bids on both properties after they were advertised for re-lease recently. Following the department’s re-lease process, both lessees chose to match these bids and, as a result, will retain the leases.

The parcel in Garfield County is located on the breaks of the Snake River and consisted of approximately 780 acres of farm land. This Crop Share Lease has a 5-year average of approximately 75 bushels per acre. Thanks to the recent wheat prices it has produced a 10 percent average rate of return on investment for the trust.

state trust land

Photo: DNR

The Columbia County parcel is adjacent to 320 acres of state trust land near the Tucannon River. It consists of 160 acres of grazing land and approximately 600 acres of dryland. A wind power lease was already in place when DNR obtained this parcel. In 2005, when Puget Sound Energy began commercial operations on the Hopkins Ridge Wind Power Project, nine 1.8 megawatt turbines were installed on this parcel providing the trust with payments for each kilowatt of power produced from the turbines. Because wind power and dryland agriculture are compatible, the trust has continued to receive lease payments from the dryland lessee as well as the power company. The average wheat production on this lease has proven to be 65 bushels per acre. The farm and wind power revenues combined produced a 39 percent rate of return in 2012.

Some citizens have expressed concern about DNR purchasing replacement property and removing that land from counties’ tax bases. It is important to remember that while DNR-managed land is exempt from tax, certain incomes – including revenue associated with dryland farm production – is subject to leasehold excise tax. Based on a percentage of the rent charged to the lessee, approximately 50 percent of leasehold excise tax revenues are returned to the county in lieu of property tax. Often, the value of the excise tax is equal to, if not greater, than the normal property tax.

The performance of these parcels is another example of how DNR looks to the long-term benefit of the state trust beneficiaries as well as to the needs of lease-holders and counties.

by Ryan Cloud, Dayton Unit Land Manager, Southeast Region

Grazing and Wind together in Ellensburg

wind farm on state trust landAs you drive through the Kittitas Valley along I-90 you will see the blades of wind towers turning gently in the ever-present breeze that Ellensburg is known for. Located at the base of the Cascades, the windy city of the dry side of Washington State has become a leader in producing renewable energy with the power of the wind.

In 2006, Kittitas Valley became the home to the Wild Horse Wind Power Project, the first of three such projects in the valley. The site, located north of the Vantage Highway and 12 miles east of Ellensburg, has 149 turbines – 34 of them are on state trust land managed by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Just across the Vantage Highway, to the south of the Wild Horse Wind Power Project, is the Invenergy Wind Power project consisting of 64 turbines, 13 of which are on DNR-managed state trust land. North of Ellensburg is the Kittitas Valley Wind Power Project in which 13 of the 48 turbines are on state trust land.

All three projects are on land historically leased by DNR for grazing, and on which grazing leases continue to be managed. Recreation activities such as elk and deer hunting continue to be enjoyed, along with hiking, bird watching, horseback riding and exploring.

The wind power projects on state land in Kittitas County not only generate clean energy, they are a significant revenue source for the beneficiaries of the state trust lands. Thanks to the wind power projects, revenue generated from these state lands has gone from less than the dollar-per acre that grazing alone provided to more than $200 an acre per year. In high wind years, annual revenues have reached as high as $500 per acre. In 2012, DNR and the Common School Trust for K-12 school construction received total rental income of $630,949 from these grazing and wind leases.

In partnership with citizens and governments, DNR strives to provide innovative leadership and expertise to ensure environmental protection, public safety, perpetual funding for schools and communities and a rich quality of life. Through our sustainable management of resources entrusted to our care, future generations will have opportunities to enjoy and benefit from Washington’s rich natural heritage.

 by Tammy Yeakey, Southeast Region