Earth Innovations is a new series from Sound Agriculture that covers the up-and-coming techniques growers are deploying to keep their yields high and their land healthy for generations to come. In each blog post, we break down the benefits and challenges of incorporating new practices, using real growers’ experiences and the Sound Agronomy Team’s expertise.
In this installment, we explore if an NRCS program a good fit for your farm. For growers looking to increase on-farm sustainability, NRCS can offer support, no-cost expertise, and funding.
One of the most common ways for growers looking to increase their sustainability efforts is to access assistance, funding, and expertise through USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service. In this installment of Earth Innovations, we’re taking a look at what the NRCS offers growers and what to consider when deciding if an NRCS program is right for your farm.
The NRCS is a branch of USDA that provides no-cost technical assistance to growers who want to improve on-farm sustainability and increase conservation practices. Experts who work with NRCS include soil conservationists and scientists, biologists, foresters, civil and agricultural engineers, and agronomists. Growers can also apply for NRCS funding and grants to help implement new conservation practices or receive funds to offset the cost of practices they’re already using.
NRCS has local Service Centers across the country at the county level to provide localized, relevant information to the growers they work with.
Sarah Taylor, Sales Agronomist at Sound Agriculture, says it’s important for growers looking for NRCS assistance to work with their local office. “Different regions will have different climates and, for example, different cover crops they recommend. And because the timing of grant funding varies across the country, the local NRCS extension office is also the only place that will know your county’s timing.”
No-Cost Technical Assistance
Working with the land year-in and year-out makes growers experts on the subtleties of the soil, climate, and needs of their own operations, but when it comes to implementing or fine-tuning new practices, talking with other professionals may be helpful. Through the NRCS Conservation Technical Assistance Program (CTAP), NRCS planners and experts can help growers find solutions that will fit their operation and offer guidance on suitable conservation practices.
Together, growers and NRCS can create a comprehensive Conservation Plan based on the grower’s needs and goals. Growers make the final decision regarding the plan, and the process includes assistance obtaining permits, land rights and inspections. Ongoing evaluation is a key part of the Conservation Plan to help ensure goals are still being met and make adjustments as necessary.
Through the CTAP, NRCS strives to reduce soil loss and the damage caused by sedimentation or drought, enhance wildlife habitat, and improve long-term land sustainability.
Grants and Funding
Growers can also reduce the financial risk of sustainability practices by taking advantage of NRCS’ financial assistance programs.
Several programs exist for growers looking to implement or continue on-farm conservation practices, increase sustainability or improve water quality, but the largest two are the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP).
EQIP for Success
Through EQIP, growers can receive technical and financial assistance to implement conservation practices such as cover cropping, crop rotation, or prescribed grazing. NRCS accepts applications year-round, and each state will batch and rank applications throughout the year; growers should contact their local NRCS office for region-specific information on application deadlines and cutoffs.
Applications are ranked based on factors like cost-effectiveness compared to conservation benefits, how effectively the proposed practices address specific concerns, and fulfillment of EQIP program goals.
Utilizing EQIP can help growers who are interested in introducing new practices to their farm reduce the financial risk to their operation. EQIP payments cover the costs associated with implementing the conservation practice and income forgone as a result.
Conservation Stewardship Program
For growers who are already using conservation practices on their farm, the CSP provides technical and financial assistance to maintain or expand those practices and implement new ones.
Applications for the CSP are generally accepted on a rolling basis, with a cut-off date chosen by each State NRCS office. After the cut-off date, applications are ranked and selected based on current and projected conservation performance. If selected, growers sign a five-year CSP contract and receive payments on an annual basis.
Growers can enroll land in both EQIP and CSP, but CSP will not pay for practices that are already being paid for under EQIP. To participate in the CSP, growers must enroll their entire operation in the program.
Because NRCS programs are run at the county level, the best way for growers to access information about application requirements and deadlines is getting in touch with their local NRCS office.
“The local NRCS extension office is a great resource,” says Sarah.
A Grower’s Perspective
At Harborview Farms, a fourth generation Maryland operation, Trey Hill’s approach focuses on sustainability, environmental stewardship, and cutting-edge technology.
“I’ve worked with a lot of different programs, especially on the environmental side because it helps us to offset our impact and make us more sustainable,” he says. The NRCS is just one organization Trey and his family have worked with to help them implement a variety of conservation practices. They also work with a local riverkeeper, the Farm Service Agency’s Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, and the State of Maryland.
“The NRCS cover crop program is good,” he says. “It pays well and it really got us going on cover cropping.” Today, cover cropping is a big part of Harborview’s conservation practices; with over 20 years of cover cropping experience, today 100% of the farm’s fields have cover crops — although much of the cover cropping is now done through a state program.
For interested growers, the process of implementing NRCS programs isn’t without potential challenges. As with many governmental programs, there is red tape to get through and the process can be a little old fashioned. Trey says he’d like to see the NRCS update their processes to make them a little more modern and efficient. For example, more online options could make life easier for busy farmers and reduce the need to go into a regional office.
“But the federal government is a big ship; it’s hard to turn,” admits Trey.
The Right Tool for the Job
Trey notes that one weakness of the NRCS is that it doesn’t market itself well. “Salesmanship just isn’t part of it,” he says.
NGOs like The Nature Conservancy or local riverkeepers often do more outreach to growers and can help implement sustainability practices and get funding through NRCS and other federal programs. Trey says he’s had a good relationship with the Maryland riverkeeper organization ShoreRivers.
“A big part of ShoreRiver’s focus on marketing to farmers is simply implementing NRCS programs,” he says. “They take care of the paperwork, the office visits, and help facilitate the process.” He encourages growers to look for organizations in their state or community that can help them get funding for current conservation practices and implement new ones.
“It can really simplify the process,” he says.
As a grower himself, Trey knows every operation has its own unique needs and each grower may find a different tool useful. Whether or not a grower gets third-party assistance, NRCS programs are another potential tool, but it’s worth considering whether technical assistance or programs like EQIP and CSP can provide you with support.
“The folks at NRCS are good people,” says Trey. “They’re there to help the world and do the right thing.”
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