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Originally published Tuesday, July 10, 2012 at 4:27 PM

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Wash. to auction off right to farm key farm land

The Washington state Department of Natural Resources plans to auction off the right to farm its largest parcel of irrigated farm land, a prime piece of property overlooking the Columbia River in Eastern Washington.

Associated Press

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YAKIMA, Wash. —

The Washington state Department of Natural Resources plans to auction off the right to farm its largest parcel of irrigated farm land, a prime piece of property overlooking the Columbia River in Eastern Washington.

The nearly 3,400-acre property known as the Sandpiper Tree Farm sits about five miles from Paterson in rural Benton County, southwest of the Tri-Cities - an area that has seen a marked increase in orchard and vineyard development in recent years.

An open house will be held at the property from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Thursday. The state will open all sealed auction bids on Aug. 14.

The land was developed in the 1970s for row crops. Boise Cascade Corp. developed part of it into a poplar tree farm in the 1990s, and Greenwood Resources bought the land in 2007 for a timber investment fund.

The state bought the land in May for the school trust that helps pay for public school construction. Nearly 2,120 acres are in irrigated agriculture, in addition to 214 acres of state-owned trees that will be harvested in 2017. About 1,000 acres are composed of wildlife habitat, roads and other uses.

The property is already attached and serviced by a Columbia River pump station with a water right, said Rick Roeder, the agency's assistant division manager for agriculture and water resources.

"That is very unique. Often times, when we get land, the buyers will still need to bring water to it or do a lot of infrastructure improvements," he said. "Basically, if somebody wants to put a center pivot in here, they can do so."

The Department of Natural Resources manages 5.6 million acres of forest, range, agricultural, aquatic and commercial lands to generate money to support public schools, universities and county services. Nearly one-fifth of that acreage is in agriculture, generally small tracts in a checkerboard pattern across Eastern Washington.

The latest property is not atypical of the other leased properties, except that it is so large, Roeder said.

The agency has developed a proposed rent schedule that gradually increases the amount due until 2018, when the full rent of $950,000 becomes due each year. Additional rent of $100 or $150 per acre will be required, depending on the crop grown.

"We recognize that new tenants will have the expenses of getting established, and it will take a while for crops to come into full production," he said.

The lease runs through 2036.

The rent proposal is comparable to what growers of perennial crops, such as orchards and vineyards, can expect to pay, said Tom Mackay of AgriNorthwest, which produces potatoes, corn and wheat.

Mackay said he could see that rate being applicable to row crops, depending on how much personal property is included, such as above-ground irrigation systems.

"It's a fair-sized operation, but it's not large," he said. "I don't know that the state is being unreasonable at all."

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