Get out the Map! A Soil Health Roadmap for Washington

By Karen Hills, Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources, Washington State University

Two hands holding a handful of dark soil
Maintaining and improving soil health can result in benefits both on- and off-farm. Photo: Chad Kruger.

Soil has been called “the living skin of the Earth.” The effort to maintain the health of this “living skin” in Washington got a boost in 2021 when the State Legislature passed the Washington Soil Health Initiative with a $2.1 million annual allocation (half of which goes to Washington State University). Washington State is just one of many states in the U.S. where interest in soil health has resulted in initiatives focused on maintaining soil health on working lands, but, notably, no other state’s soil health initiative is investing as much into research as Washington’s. Soil health is defined by the USDA NRCS as “…the continued capacity of soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals, and humans.” Soil health is often described as a “win-win” with positive outcomes both on-farm and off-farm. For example, on-farm benefits include improved soil tilth, nutrient cycling, water holding capacity, and disease suppression. Off-farm benefits include reduced soil erosion and improved water quality, as well as reducing the impact on our climate, most directly through carbon sequestration.

The win-win nature of soil health allowed the Washington Soil Health Initiative to gain support from commodity groups in Washington as well as environmental organizations.

Cover of the report, with pictures showing crops, soil, soil samples.
The recently released Washington Soil Health Initiative Roadmap

It can be challenging, however, to move from a general “feel good” term like soil health into the realm of practical and specific strategies, but that’s what a team I was part of aimed to do in the recently released Washington Soil Health Initiative Roadmap. This 124-page document is the result of a coordinated effort by Washington State University, Washington State Department of Agriculture, and the Washington State Conservation Commission that outlines challenges and opportunities within Washington’s diverse production systems.

Two years ago, we began a process to understand the current issues of soil health and the barriers to adoption of soil health promoting practices, and to identify goals and milestones for maintaining and improving soil health across the state. In a state like Washington, with its more than 300 commodity and specialty crops spanning multiple climate regimes and soil types, this is no small feat. Twenty three individuals directly contributed to the process which involved collecting information from many additional representatives of seven different agricultural production systems (dryland Eastern Washington, tree fruit, wine and juice grapes, irrigated Columbia Basin, Columbia Basin potato, diversified Western Washington, and Northwestern Washington annual cropping systems) as well as from members of the environmental community with an interest in soil health.

So, what does the roadmap mean for Washington’s efforts to maintain and improve soil health? It provides valuable guidance for forward movement on soil health in many of Washington’s most economically impactful cropping systems, as well as an important snapshot of priorities and challenges specific to particular areas of focus.

If you are interested in a specific production system, we encourage you to delve into the relevant chapter of the report, but here are some distillations that span across these systems (called focus areas in the report):

“Across focus areas there was a common emphasis on the need for production system-specific research, outreach and technical support, optimization of soil health metrics, and incentive programs.”

—Washington Soil Health Initiative Roadmap (2021)

No-till drill planting a cover crop into wheat stubble.
Programs like Washington’s Sustainable Farms and Fields Program can provide incentives to undertake soil health improving practices, such as implementing no-till. Photo: Andy McGuire.

This report is expected to provide insight and guidance for a number of efforts underway. Washington State University is currently evaluating requests for funding to set up additional Long Term Agricultural Research and Extension sites within the state, which will support the needed research, outreach and technical support. Statewide programs such as the recently funded Sustainable Farms and Fields Program can then provide incentives that give landowners increased options to undertake soil health improving practices. Stay tuned for more on these programs as Washington’s efforts ramp up.

Reference:

Hills, K. & C. Benedict (Eds.) 2021. Washington Soil Health Initiative Roadmap. Washington State University, Pullman WA. October 2021.