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Corey Bonsen is working with 40 growers in the Naches watershed who are participating in the national Conservation Securtiy Program. PHOTO BY MELISSA HANSEN

Corey Bonsen is working with 40 growers in the Naches watershed who are participating in the national Conservation Securtiy Program. PHOTO BY MELISSA HANSEN

More than 40 orchardists in Washington State’s Naches watershed, located northwest of Yakima and representing 4,400 acres, are participating in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Security Program. A voluntary program authorized by the 2002 Farm Bill, it rewards growers for stewardship of their lands and pays them for maintaining and enhancing natural resources.

More than $450,000 was paid to the Naches watershed growers last year, averaging some $11,000 per grower, with a total of $2.7 million contracted for payment over a ten-year period. Nationwide, agriculturists will receive more than $230 million from conservation contracts approved through 2006. The program is coordinated by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.

"This is quite a boost for the local economy," said Chris Johnson, NRCS district conservationist based in Zillah, Washington, who is in charge of the Naches program. "It’s pumped a lot of money into the local community."

Eligibility

The Naches watershed orchardists who are participating represent all sizes of farmers, from the largest with 900 acres to the smallest with 11 acres, said Corey Bonsen, NRCS soil conservationist. Bonsen works directly with the watershed growers, assisting with the application process and annually inspecting operations. Nine of the contracts are held with Hispanic orchardists, he added.

Although the program is designed for all types of farmers and ranchers within selected watersheds, tree fruit and grape growers tend to more easily meet the program’s qualifications. A soil condition index is computed for the land within the watershed, based on tillage, crop residues, crop rotation, and soil inputs. Orchardists and vineyardists are more likely than other types of farmers to have a positive soil condition index due to permanent crops and soil management practices within the orchard, such as cover crops or natural vegetation down the row middles.

"The index basically analyzes the soil tilth to see if soil condition is on an upward or downward trend," Johnson said, adding that a soil test within the last five years is needed to calculate the soil index.

Some growers might need to incorporate more soil tests into their management plans, but Johnson found that most of the Naches watershed orchardists were already doing what was needed to be eligible, including using efficient irrigation methods, and just had to document what they were doing.

Program participation is divided into three tiers, with tier III growers recognized for implementing the maximum number of practices covered by the program. The maximum annual amount a grower can receive is $45,000, which is based on acreage and the number of enhancements.

"For most growers, it was a slam-dunk decision to apply," Bonsen said. "They kept asking, ‘What’s the catch?’ The only down side was the need for some additional recordkeeping than they might be normally doing."

Enhancements

The real financial incentives, however, come in the form of the program’s enhancements. Growers can sign up for future enhancements and receive additional money during the life of the five- or ten-year contract.

"The enhancement package is really where the bucks are at and are what makes the program worth it," Johnson said.

Enhancements cover many areas, including energy, habitat, nutrient, pest, water, air resource, and soil. Enhancements also consider management practices, which range from performing an energy audit and recycling used tractor motor oil to planting field borders to improve wildlife habitat or manage dust.

Johnson explained that the program rewards growers for benchmark enhancements—those already being done by the grower—as well as future enhancements.

"The program was designed to wag the carrot in front of growers for current and future work and to encourage them to take on more conservation and stewardship practices." He likened the enhancements to a well-qualified résumé. The more work experience and related activities one has, the better your chance of receiving higher compensation in the job market.

Bonsen noted that future enhancements are those that a grower plans to implement within the five- or ten-year contract. For example, there are six improvement areas for cropland for pest management enhancements. Though most growers had not implemented all six areas before participating, they were following a majority of the practices, such as using an integrated pest management plan and reducing pesticide application through the nonchemical means of pheromone mating disruption.

Future watersheds

Originally, the program’s goal was to touch all U.S. watersheds within an eight-year rotation. But success of the program and available funding has slowed down the program’s pace, with many large and agriculturally important watersheds yet to be chosen. In 2006, most states had only one watershed selected for the program. For Washington, that was Naches, and in Oregon, the watershed was the Upper Grande Ronde and Upper Klamath Lake.

The preliminary 2007 watershed selected for Washington, the Lower Snake-Tucannon, is not expected to greatly impact tree fruit growers.

The program has been very popular on a national basis, especially in Congress, Johnson said, but he is unsure of the program’s future. "The problem is that we’re in the midst of developing a new Farm Bill. I don’t know what the program will look like in the new Farm Bill. I think it will survive, but I don’t know to what extent."

Johnson encouraged growers to keep watch for future watersheds selected for the conservation program. In preparation, he suggests that permanent crop growers keep records of orchard practices and include soil samples in their nutrient program, using test results to guide nutrient applications.