Over the past 20 years, taxpayers have spent $30 billion on programs to help farmers be more environmentally friendly, including $59 million in Yakima County, Wash.
Data on these conservation payments was recently released by an environmental group that's raising questions about the effectiveness of the federal farm conservation policy.
The Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Working Group says while these voluntary programs make a difference, they aren't doing enough to target the most urgent threats to clean water and air.
"Americans across the country are seeing the price of farm pollution firsthand," said Craig Cox, the group's senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources in a news release. "It's time for Congress to deliver a return on their tax dollars by requiring farmers who take money from these programs to do more to protect the environment and public health."
But in Yakima County, people close to the programs say they are working well to prevent water waste and protect habitat.
Local payments include: $15 million in irrigation system upgrades; $2 million every year to farmers who plant or protect areas of native plants; $1 million in crop and pest management; and $234,000 for forest management.
Programs provide a wide variety of funding for farmers who adopt environmentally friendly practices including: natural vegetation buffers along creeks; drip irrigation systems; no-till farming to slow soil erosion; and nutrition management for dairy cows, to reduce the amount of methane gas they produce.
Such practices produce environmental benefits, but too often the money is spread too thin or not targeted to the worst problems, according to the environmental group.
That's not the case locally, said Mike Tobin, director of the North Yakima Conservation District. He doesn't work directly with these financial assistance programs, but he sits on a local committee tasked with setting the environmental priorities that ensure the federal money is well spent by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resource Conservation Service.
"We're extremely diverse, so it's a cumbersome process, but at the end of the day, we believe we are setting the (conservation service) on course to spend the money in the best way possible," Tobin said.
Washington's work groups seem to work better than in some other states because they cover larger areas and include more diverse interests to force a debate about priorities, said Ray Legerwood, the program facilitator for the Washington State Conservation Commission.
"When they sit down and talk about it, you figure out how to get the most from every dollar spent," Legerwood said.
The local work group covers Yakima, Benton and Klickitat counties and includes representatives from conservation districts, state agencies and county farm groups, said Corey Bonsen, the NRCS district conservationist in Yakima. The committee also sets criteria for ranking projects in the various categories so the projects that provide the most environmental benefits get funded first, he said.
Top priorities for the region are water conservation and preventing soil erosion on dryland wheat farms, Bonsen said.
The Environmental Quality Incentives Program provides financial assistance for both of those and a host of other environmentally friendly farm practices. Since 1998, when the program was created, Yakima County farmers have received ?$17.7 million from this program, more than any other county in Washington.
More than $15 million of that has been spent on irrigation — drip systems, sprinklers and pipes — under 467 contracts.
More efficient irrigation has been credited with helping to reduce pesticide and sediment-laden runoff into the Yakima River, improving water quality.
That's the type of outcome the program aims for.
In response to Environmental Working Group's stance, the Agriculture Department pointed to other success stories nationwide, including reducing nitrogen runoff from farms by nearly 600 million pounds per year.
But the programs are voluntary and some initiatives are not as popular as the irrigation financial assistance.
For example, only one Yakima County farmer has received payment for the air quality improvement project, even though it's new national priority focused on reducing blowing dust or methane emissions from livestock. Bonsen said that he's found the Valley's dairy farmers are hesitant to get involved, but dryland wheat farmers in Benton County have been eager to take advantage of it.
"People often hold out until their neighbors adopt a practice and they see that it works," he said. "One producer or rancher telling their neighbors is our biggest way to get more people in the door; we can't force people to come sign up."
Some farmers apply repeatedly for programs, but most that Bonsen works with are one-time projects.
In contrast, farmers who participate in the Agriculture Department's Conservation Reserve Program often get payments for years.
Under that program, farmers don't farm so the land can serve as wildlife habitat or buffer. Payments vary, but the average is $73 an acre, according to the Farm Service Agency. In Yakima County, 48,000 acres were enrolled in the program in 2014.