Conservation and Farming

Direct Seeding

I’ve spent much of my farming career figuring out ways to reduce tillage and increase the crop residue left on the surface of my fields.  We’re making steady progress (see the “Residue History” spreadsheet below). So far, I haven’t followed the lead of some of my neighbors and adopted chemical fallow and direct seeding.  I wrote an article published in the May 2009 edition of the Washington Wheat Growers’ Wheat Lifemagazine that explains why.  The article outlines the difficulties of making direct seeding work in the dry areas of the PNW and discusses why direct seeding reduces our average yields.  See

WheatLife-Direct Seeding 

For a slightly longer version of the article with footnotes and a bibliography, see

Why I haven’t switched to direct seeding

Conservation Compliance

In 1985, national farm organizations realized for the first time that they didn’t have enough votes to pass the farm bill.  To attract additional support from the environmental community, a new requirement was added to the farm bill limiting the amount of erosion allowed on “highly erodible land.”  The Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) was given the responsibility of implementing “conservation compliance” regulations.  The NRCS’s primary mission before 1985 had been providing farmers with technical assistance about how to implement conservation practices. Regulating agriculture was a very different and new role and the NRCS took several years considering different approaches.

In our area, the NRCS first considered specifying acceptable tillage sequences, but soon realized that this approach was not workable.  The NRCS didn’t want to be responsible for the day-to-day management of farms.  It finally settled on writing a conservation plan for each farm that specified the amount of crop residue required to be on the soil surface of each field during the peak erosion period.

The NRCS had found an effective and workable approach.  Adequate residue prevents erosion and the required residue level usually can be achieved by many different tillage sequences.  Requiring a farmer to achieve a minimum level of residue allows the farmer to decide which farming practices to use and to vary the tillage sequence in response to new problems that arise each year in growing a crop.  I discuss this in more detail in

Regulating Wheat Farms

The NRCS “conservation compliance” plans have one problem, however.  They require farmers to keep residue above a specified levelevery year.  This requirement can be impossible when a drought or some other problem causes the residue available from the previous crop to be unusually low.  Insufficient straw and crop residue may be available from the previous crop to meet the requirement no matter what a farmer does.

To deal with variations in residue that occur from year to year, I’ve always believed that farmers should measure the residue level on each of their fields each year.  Measuring the residue on a field takes less than an hour’s time.  The NRCS should require farmers to keep a five-year average of residue above a specified level.  Although drought or other problems can cause low residue in any one year, a farmer should always be able to keep his average residue above the required level.  Once a farmer has collected a multi-year residue history, the NRCS should have no trouble determining if a farmer’s tillage system meets the “conservation compliance” requirements.

In 1993, I decided to start developing a residue history for my farm and immediately ran into a problem.  To be credible, I needed to hire an objective (third-party) person to do the measurement and store the data so it is accessible to the NRCS.  However, under existing NRCS regulations, I would then be doing spot-checks on myself.  If I documented a residue deficiency, my landlords and I would lose farm program payments — and I would probably have my lease terminated on the grounds of stupidity.

I decided the NRCS regulations needed to be changed.  I flew to Washington, D.C. to make my case to Karl Reinhardt, who was then head of the Compliance Section of NRCS.  After my meeting with Mr. Reinhardt I wrote the following paper to explain the advantages of using a five-year average of residue in making compliance determinations.

Residue Averaging and Conservation Compliance

Mr. Reinhardt changed the 3rd edition of the National Food Security Act Manual (NFSAM) to specify that producer-collected records that show a “deficiency that may occur in a field in a single year will not be the basis for a non-compliance decision.”  Unfortunately,  Mr. Reinhardt retired shortly after our meeting and his successor immediately changed the NFSAM back to its original wording.  I then had a lengthy and sometimes heated exchange of letters with the national NRCS leadership.  Finally, NRCS Deputy Chief, Tom Weber, the NRCS National Agronomist, David Schertz, and several others flew to Portland to meet with me.  They agreed to a “pilot” program that would allow up to 10 farmers from the PNW to develop residue histories.

Even though Tom Gohlke, Oregon’s NRCS State Agronomist, and I pitched this “pilot” program at a STEEP conference, I believe I am the only farmer who participated and may have the only continuous residue history in the U.S.  The summary of residue data I’ve collected follows.

McCoy Residue History 

As it turned out, I was glad the NRCS agreed to change their normal rules for the “pilot” program.  When I started collecting residue data in the fall of 1994, I documented residue deficiencies in two of my fields.  Weather conditions were unusual in the fall of 1994.  A very dry fall was followed by 4 inches of rain over a three day period in early November.  By the time we did the measurements, most of my residue was buried under mud.

The Clean Water Act and SB 1010

Oregon wheat farmers must comply with both federal “conservation compliance” plans and a second set of erosion and water-quality regulations administered by the Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA).  SB 1010 was passed by the Oregon legislature in the mid-1990’s as part of the implementation of the federal Clean Water Act.  It mandates that ODA develop plans for each of the major watersheds in Oregon and regulations to ensure that water in the watersheds meets Oregon water-quality standards.

The Oregon Wheat Growers League strongly supported the passage of SB 1010.  Wheat growers had just been through the process of developing federal conservation plans.  The federal regulations based on surface residue requirements were generally viewed as being reasonable and wheat growers believed that ODA would build on the federal approach.

Unfortunately for us, other agricultural groups in Oregon were lobbying the ODA to take a different approach — one that focused only on actual outcomes rather than on preventive measures such as residue.  The Oregon Farm Bureau and Oregon Cattlemen incorporated their outcomes-based approach into a model (”The Template”) that they asked to be used in developing all the new watershed plans.

In the dry parts of eastern Oregon, almost all erosion and run-off occur during winter storms when the soil is frozen.  Rain and snow melt are unable to soak into frozen soil and have nowhere to go but down a creek.  Some of these storms are so severe that run-off will occur no matter what farming practices are used.  Under these conditions, outcomes-based regulations face the severe problem of determining the cause of excess run-off.  Should the severity of the storm be blamed or inadequate preventive measures by the landowners?  Landowners also have a difficult time understanding what is expected of them since they can’t anticipate the severity of future storms.

Farmers in my area were unable to convince ODA to adopt the preventive approach pioneered by NRCS.  After much discussion, it became clear that ODA will use the “Waste Management Rule” (ORS 468B) in determining violations.  ORS 468B is an outcomes-based law that simply states “no person shall … cause pollution to any waters of the state….”  For a discussion of ORS 468B see:

Enforcing the WMR

What should you do if you are contacted by ODA about a water quality problem?  My advice can be split into two parts.  First, you should cooperate and follow their recommendations.  In all the cases with which I’m familiar, ODA has intervened only when a serious problem exists that needs to be remedied.  The ODA staff will help you find the necessary cost-share funds and expertise to solve the problem.

Second, ODA is unlikely to cite you for a violation of the Rules if you cooperate in solving the problem.  However, if you are cited for a violation, make sure that ODA provides you with full documentation showing that you have caused “pollution” of the waters of the State of Oregon.  If your farm is adjacent to a stream, ODA may be able to collect the necessary legal documentation.  If our farm is 10 miles from the nearest waterway, I don’t know how ODA could legally enforce ORS 468B.  I would be very interested in seeing a copy of the documentation that ODA provides you.

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