Lawmakers Find Common Ground on Soil Health Bill

Jason Kaplan
Irrigation canal on Randall Kizer’s Loosley Ranch in Fort Klamath

The Bill’s chief sponsor says the new, voluntary soil health program represents a ‘new way forward’ for Salem Democrats to approach farming issues.

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State lawmakers have dropped the more controversial regulatory components of a soil health bill that failed during last year’s legislative short session. Farmers’ groups say they’re happy — both with the resulting bill and with the engagement that led to it.

HB 2998 passed unanimously out of the Agriculture and Land Use Committee on March 14, and is currently before the Ways and Means Committee.

Sponsored by Rep. Ken Helm (D-Beaverton), Sen. Bill Hansell (R-Crane) and 16 other legislators, HB 2998 would create a voluntary soil health initiative administered by a collaboration of Oregon State University Extension Service, the OSU College of Agriculture Science, the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board and the Department of Agriculture. The bill would appropriate $2 million from the state’s general fund to finance staffing and grants for participating farms and soil and water conservation districts to share soil health methods and practices, and to borrow and purchase new equipment to reduces soil erosion.

Helm says the bill is based on SB 1534 that was introduced during the 2022 legislative short session and is modeled on California’s soil health initiative. But it has dropped some regulatory components from the 2022 version, including the creation of a “soil score” assessing lands’ soil health. At the time, detractors said the soil score could be used as a regulatory instrument, which caused the bill to stall in committee until the session adjourned.

“A lot of my work this session is to rehabilitate Democrats’ relationship with the agricultural community,” says Helm. “Why don’t we stop arguing about how to manage this idea of soil, carbon sequestration in soils and just get right down to it? Let’s go out there and see if we can get people interested in implementing some of these practices that help sequester carbon and have co-benefits of reducing erosion and holding more water in the soil for them to fight drought,” says Helm.

“That’s why this is voluntary, its incentive based, and we really wanted to get it to hit the ground running. I’m not pretending to know everything about how agriculture is conducted across the state, just trusting that farmers want to do right by their land. This is a helping hand instead of a regulatory directive, and I think that’s appreciated. That’s why you saw the type of response to the bill.”

Katie Murray, executive director of Oregonians for Food & Shelter, (OFS) a coalition which includes representatives from the Oregon Farm Bureau, the Weyerhaeuser company, and the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, tells Oregon Business over email that although her organization originally submitted testimony opposing HB 2998, her organization is now on board. She writes that OFS worked on the bill with its proponents and was able to receive amendments that addressed her organization’s concerns, which were related to claims, definitions and practices it considered to be limiting or lacking in broad application.

“The base bill’s definitions would have limited what counted as a ‘soil health practice’ to just a short list of potential practices,” Murray wrote. “The definition also lacked consideration for soil functionality and crop production as a primary goal, which producers know is the overall goal of soil health in crop production,” she writes. “We were able to get that definition broadened out to include any practices that are scientifically supported to improve soil health over time, which will provide the flexibility needed for a wide variety of producers to be able to benefit from the incentives.”

Megan Kemple, co-director of the Oregon Climate & Agricultural Network, which supported the bill, says it encourages famers and growers who want to maintain their soil by lowering the cost and barriers to entry of adopting healthy soil practices.

“One example would be if someone wanted to use a no-till drill, which is a farm implement that attached to a tractor which creates these little slits in the soil and drops the seeds in without tilling,” Kemple says. “If a group of farmers were interested that equipment but didn’t want to purchase it, maybe because they only use it once a year, a soil and water conservation district could purchase it with a little grant.”

All contacted parties agreed soil health was something to remain vigilant about going forward. A 2014 report the United Nations found that if soil erosion continues at its current pace, the world’s remaining topsoil will be gone by 2075.

According to American Farmland Trust’s 2019 soil health case studies, 80% of row crop farmers attributed yield increases to soil health practices, with all participants experiencing positive returns on investment of between 7% and 343%.

Jeff Stone, executive director of the Oregon Association of Nurseries, who originally submitted neutral testimony on HB 2998 says he didn’t want the bill to be only for crops which could use no-till practices, and that he wanted the bill to reward other methods of sustainable soil remediation, like cover crops – plants which are planted on agricultural land to slow soil erosion.

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“We wanted to make sure this didn’t become the ‘no-till’ act. No-till has its place because tilling land does release sequestered carbon, but not tilling is not a solution for every type of agriculture,” says Stone. Stone says his concerns have since been addressed and praised Helm’s engagement strategy with growers – one he hopes will be recreated with other farm bills in the future.

“Instead of writing something and then asking, ‘Oh hey, are you guys are you guys okay with this?’, Rep. Helm actually asked us. You wouldn’t think it would be such a defining thing, but we’ve seen plenty of those types of bills before. He got us from being very suspicious to on board with it,” says Stone. “We love to support this bill now because we want to reward good interaction with the actual working lands folks.”

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