On Thursday, members and staff of the Washington Association of Wheat Growers testified in front of the Washington State Senate’s Agriculture, Water, Trade and Economic Development Committee during a public hearing on SB 5051, a bill relating to non-default termination provisions in state land leases for agricultural or grazing purposes.
Chad Smith and Nicole Berg, both wheat farmers from Benton County, and Diana Carlen, the lobbyist for the Washington Association of Wheat Growers, testified on the effects of a decision last summer when with little advance notice, the Washington State Department of Natural Resources decided to terminate several leases in Benton County that were not set to expire until 2020 or later.
Sponsored by Senators Sharon Brown, Judy Warnick, Jim Honeyford, Randi Becker and Mark Schoesler, the bill would require the Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to provide at least 180 days advance written notice before terminating an agricultural or grazing lease. The bill would also require the agency to provide written documentation to the lessee demonstrating that the department has included the leased land in a plan for higher and better use, land exchange or sale.
Smith recounted being notified last March that DNR would be terminating his lease, which still had more than three years on it, within 60 days. He told the senators that because of that early termination, he lost almost one third of the ground he farms, not to mention all the investments in equipment, inputs and time he’d made in order to grow crops on that land.
Berg reiterated Smith’s story and said that relations between the Benton County farmers and DNR are very strained right now.
“We feel that trust has been breached,” she told the senators.
DNR staffers also testified in support of the bill, acknowledging their poor handling of the situation and saying they “communicated poorly and late.”