Water Quality Effects of Multifunctional Working Buffers for Seasonally Wet Farmland

Project Overview

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2022: $336,119.00
Projected End Date: 07/31/2025
Host Institution Award ID: G121-23-W9209
Grant Recipient: Snohomish Conservation District
Region: Western
State: Washington
Principal Investigator:
Carrie Brausieck
Snohomish Conservation District
Gwendolyn Hannam
Whidbey Island Conservation District


  • Fruits: apples, berries (other)
  • Additional Plants: native plants, ornamentals, trees


  • Crop Production: agroforestry

    Proposal abstract:

    Changing climate, development, and the need for habitat protection is increasing pressure on US farmland. Climate-related changes in precipitation and drainage challenges are leading to areas of formerly productive agricultural lands becoming increasingly saturated, and regulations restrict the addition of new drainage. Meanwhile, the decreasing availability and rising cost of agricultural land is driving new farmers to purchase marginal land that often suffers from hydrologic issues. These factors especially impact socially and economically disadvantaged farmers, limiting their access to well-drained land.

    Farming seasonally wet fields presents problems for annual crops and can have negative impacts on nearby water quality, but farmers must maximize land resources to remain economically viable. This makes it difficult to set aside land for conservation or restoration without sufficient financial incentives, yet existing incentive payments are often not large enough to offset production losses.

    “Working buffers”–a perennial agroforestry cropping system that can be used on seasonally wet farmland–are a promising approach for farmers to both protect water and soil resources and generate income on marginal areas. To increase working buffer adoption, more research is needed to understand their economic feasibility and their effects on water quality and soil health in the Pacific Northwest.

    This proposal is for Snohomish Conservation District (SCD), Skagit Conservation District (Skagit CD), Whidbey Island Conservation District (WICD), Snohomish County, and Washington State University (WSU) Extension to study the water quality effects of working buffers and conduct outreach to producers and agency staff. Our SARE research team aims to attain a picture of the viability of working buffers as a regional BMP by understanding effects on water quality and soil health. It will coincide with a recently awarded Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) Specialty Crops Block Grant (SCBG) that will establish a second set of trial sites and investigate the economic viability of working buffer systems.

    The Conservation Districts (CDs) will work with three producers to establish on-farm working buffer trial sites—one in each CD service area—and conduct research on their effects on water quality. Given the extended timeline to establish perennial plantings, further research will be necessary to understand the full impacts of working buffers. This grant will implement trial sites for long-term research and education in the region and provide initial impressions of their effectiveness.

    We will offer hands-on learning for stakeholders, including volunteer participation in site planting and establishment, and workshops across western Washington to present our results. Outreach will also include farm tours facilitated by our farmer-partners demonstrating how sites were established and how they function. Lastly, we will develop educational materials, including a training guide and a 5-minute video. By increasing producers’ understanding of working buffers and training agency, CD, and extension staff to provide technical support, we will develop a foundation for producers to draw from as they expand adoption of the practice in our region.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    Research Objectives

    Objective 1: Measure water quality effects of three newly established working buffer trial plantings.

    Objective 2: Identify possible benefits/limitations of young working buffer systems to improve water quality

    Objective 3: Identify what changes are observable within the timeline of this grant and where further research is needed.

    Education Objectives

    Objective 1: Engage agricultural specialists, planners, and professionals who provide technical assistance and guidance to farmers in participatory research on the effects of working buffers on seasonally wet marginal farmland.

    Objective 2: Create a farmer friendly guide to aid farmers in designing and establishing working buffer practices on marginal farm lands, and foster peer-to-peer networking and education between farmers.

    Objective 3: Create a public outreach campaign providing education opportunities for farmers and consumers in the region on the unique and innovative nature of working buffers to address environmental and production challenges, and to promote specialty crops grown in these buffers as a new and evolving market unto themselves.

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.