OLYMPIA — The Washington Senate unanimously approved and sent to the House a bill Feb. 17 to create a new program to help farmers improve the health of their soil.

Washington State University would lead the initiative, assisted by the Washington State Department of Agriculture and Washington State Conservation Commission. A financial analysis of the proposal estimates the program will cost about $1.3 million a year. Much of the money would fund new WSU researchers and extension agents.

"The goals and objectives of the initiative are to improve the viability of our agricultural sector, improve human nutrition and improve environmental function," said Sen. Marko Liias, D-Lynwood, the prime sponsor of Senate Bill 6306.

The bill calls for WSU to have research sites throughout the state to test and demonstrate practices that conserve and improve the fertility of soils. The agriculture department would assess the health of the state's soils. Conservation districts would advise landowners.

Farm and environmental groups back the bill. WSU enthusiastically supports the bill, said Chad Kruger, director of the university's research station in Mount Vernon.

Kruger told the Senate agriculture committee in January that farmers work hard to preserve soil, but "decades of traditional farming techniques and soil management strategies have depleted the natural fertility and health of the soils."

"Soil health matters because it maintains and potentially increases yields. It can help improve crop quality and nutrition," he said. "It enables more frequent planting of the highest-value crops, thus helping farmers make more money. It helps suppress soil-borne disease. It promotes drainage, water infiltration and water quality."

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