Submitted photo##To reduce erosion, straw mulch is sprayed into a newly planted hazelnut orchard using a blower.
Submitted photo##To reduce erosion, straw mulch is sprayed into a newly planted hazelnut orchard using a blower.
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Marie Vicksta: Protecting topsoil crucial for farming

Agriculture has been the lifeblood of the Yamhill County economy for generations. The diversity of what can be grown or raised here — grass seed, livestock, nursery stock, hazelnuts, grapes and high-value vegetables and fruits, for example — is dizzying.

The main reason for this scope of agricultural diversity is the amazing soil. It’s vital we protect this essential resource — a mission we embrace at the Yamhill County Soil and Water Conservation District.

Deep deposits of rich soils, carried here through the Missoula Floods and deposited on the valley floor, are the engine of local agriculture. If you ask any of your farmer friends, they will confirm the most important resource they manage is the soil.

Soil is a living system crucial to agriculture. It is home to microbes, fungi and insects that contribute to a balanced food web. Healthy soil biology is critical to nutrient cycling, water storage and root growth, which in turn grow superior crops.

Guest Writer

Marie Vicksta joined the Yamhill Soil and Water Conservation District staff in June 2010 as a conservation planner. She primarily works with private landowners to implement projects designed to improve water quality, reduce erosion and enhance wildlife habitat. In her free time, she enjoys getting outdoors to hit a hiking trail or kayaking a river. If you have questions, she can be reached at marie@yamhillswcd.org or 503-376-7606.

Soil loss through erosion is a natural process, but human activity has greatly increased the rate. This accelerated erosion is stealing our most valuable agricultural resource — our rich soil.

Nutrients and certain pesticides bind with eroded soil, which then enter our rivers, streams and roadside ditches. This can negatively affect the critters that rely on the stream to survive. It can even pose a threat to public health.

Local farmers have made great strides in reducing soil loss from erosion.

Some are employing reduced-till or no-till techniques to minimize soil disturbance, and leaving crop residue behind on the soil surface as a cover. Others are reverting to older techniques, notably cover cropping, which helps minimize the impact of erosion in the winter.

But we can do better.

Weather conditions in the fall and winter of 2016 sounded a wakeup call. For those of you who have already forgotten, fall rains started in early October and continued incessantly, causing some of the worst field erosion ever seen in these parts. Everyone experienced problems.

That led the board and staff here at the conservation district to search new tools landowners could use to help conserve precious soil. And we looked for ones that would be easy to incorporate.

In 2018, the district will be providing a free mulching service to Yamhill County farmers.

Mulching supplies soil with a layer of protection from the impact of rain. Mulching between rows of crops, or along ditches or waterways at the edges of fields, helps reduce sediment transport into waterways.

Mulch reduces the velocity of surface flow, slowing erosion. As a side benefit, it introduces more organic matter into the soil as it breaks down.

We understand that timing between the completion of the fall harvest and onset of winter rain can be tight. So in addition to dispensing straw mulch material, the district is offering to manage the logistics and apply the mulch free of charge this year.

Submitted photo## A new no-till Yamhill Soil and Water Conservation District planting drill is more useful in cover crop trails in a mature hazelnut orchard.

The district has also purchased a Land Pride 606 no-till drill, and will lend it to local farmers at no charge in 2018.

It can be used to plant cover crops, which add nitrogen and organic matter to the soil in addition to slowing erosion. It can prove especially effective in the exposed rows between hazelnut trees.

The drill can also be used to plant low-growing perennial field borders along roads and waterways, to slow and filter runoff. 

We are working with local farmers to enhance streamside buffers, also critical to filtering and reducing runoff. In a 33-acre pilot project along the North Yamhill River, we leveraged grant funding from the Oregon Department of Agriculture with funding from the USDA Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program to increase incentives for participation.

Assuming the project management role, we used contract labor for site preparation and planting services. We were able to lengthen the original project management timeline from two years to five, and increase the planting density from 586 plants per acre to 2,200 to better account for natural mortality from weather, flooding and predation.

The buffer adds habitat for wildlife. It will also supply shade, keeping down water temperatures in the summer. And its root structure will foster additional bank stability during winter flood events.

Rich, amazing soil is rare. Around the world, we are losing it faster than it can be created.

We hope by delivering some of these services and tools, it will be easier for farmers to protect their soils and keep our water healthy. If you are interested in more information, please contact Marie Vicksta at 503-376-7606 or marie@yamhillswcd.org.

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