LA CONNER, Wash. - It's a fascinating experiment. Paying farmers to flood their fields instead of planting them to create habitat for shorebirds. On average 35,000 to 40,000 shorebirds stop to feed in the Skagit Delta during their migration to and from their Arctic breeding grounds. Traditionally, farmers have drained the wetlands to grow their crops, depleting the feeding grounds.
For the last three years, a prgoram called "Farming for Wildlife" paid farmers to intentionally flood their fields for a season to provide a rich habitat for birds and other wildlife and kill pathogens in the soil. Third generation farmer Dave Hedlin called it a "win win" experience.
"In this case, we were able to do this research, build up the soil and and actually make a little margin to boot," Hedlin said.
By keeping land pesticide free and flooded, grassed or pastured for three years, farmland can become certified "organic," like the land dairy farmer Alan Nessman dedicated to the program.
"We're going to put organic corn silage in this spot here," said Nessman, indicating a pasture that was once flooded. "We're organic dairy farmers. We ship milk to "Organic Valley." So all our land has to be certified organic to meet that."
"It's just an amazing sight to see," marveled Julie Morse of the Nature Conservancy as she pointed her binoculars toward yellowlegs and Dunlin searching for tasty morsels in the mud. The Nature Conservancy says the program has been so successful, they want to replicate it along the entire "Pacific Flyway" with other farmers.
"The goal here is to give them another rotation practice," said Morse. "A lot of them will do corn or grass as a rotational crop. We're looking to see if we can use wetlands as a rotation. That way, we're putting wetlands back on the landscape."
The three year program cost about $350,000, paid for by the EPA and private donors. The program will be expanded this year with additional money from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.