IRIS | Conservation District, WSU work with farmers on cover crops

Dryland wheat farmers in North Central Washington teamed up with Okanogan Conservation District and Washington State University to learn new ways to incorporate cover crops into their farming rotations and to improve the health of their soils. (Provided photo/IRIS)

 

By Leslie Michel
Okanogan Conservation District

This article is a continuation of a series?of?success stories from the ninth annual NCW Community Success Summit?hosted by?the Initiative for Rural Innovation & Stewardship?(IRIS) on?Nov. 15 in Pateros.?For more information about the summit or to sample more stories on the Success Summit Story Exchange, visit irisncw.org.

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What was the successful outcome?

Dryland wheat farmers in North Central Washington teamed up with Okanogan Conservation District (OCD) and Washington State University to learn new ways to incorporate cover crops into their farming rotations and to improve the health of their soils. This partnership allowed farmers to test the use of cover crops on their respective farms and generated a large data set that OCD and WSU can use to develop guidelines for other farmers.

What is the situation?

Soils in NCW suffer from widespread degradation?? a situation that prompted the interest among farmers in using cover crops to improve soil health needed to meet long-term production goals. Cover crops are known to reduce erosion and increase soil health?and fertility. While farmers want to work together to find creative solutions for improving soil health?on their farms, they often don?t have the resources or time to gather quantitative information to make management decisions. In 2014,?OCD began working with farmers to plant cover crops and monitor the impact of those crops on soil health and crop production. Information on crop yield, soil health and water content was collected and analyzed for the past three years providing information on how cover crops impact farmers? soils and cash crops.

What is the challenge?

Our biggest challenge has been overcoming the mentality of ?it won?t work here.? Cover crops, such as oats, peas and radishes are known?to improve soil health in many parts of the world. In NCW we have low rainfall, little of which falls during the growing season when plants need it the most. So we approached this project with limited knowledge of what would work along with the patience and determination to figure it out over time. We have learned?something new every year and are slowly making progress towards using cover crops to improve and protect the soil.

What are the key activities?

  • Worked with 18 farmers in Okanogan, Douglas, Grant and Lincoln counties to plant cover crops and collect data on changes in soil health.
  • Listened to farmers? values and concerns from the beginning. If the practices wouldn?t work for them during the project, they wouldn?t work for them when it was done.?We included farmers in discussions to ensure we stayed true to their priorities and to keep them engaged.
  • Maintained flexibility. Farmers have many demands on their time and resources; we worked with each to ensure the project fit within their farming operation.

 

Leslie Michel?is a soil scientist with the Okanogan Conservation District. She may be reached at (509) 422-0855, ext. 106.