Buckeye Farm News
Lance Hoffman was admiring a Union County farmer’s new concrete heavy use pad this spring when he shook his head in disbelief. He had just learned that federal conservation funding had paid most of the cost of the pad.
“Really? They paid that much?” he asked Wes Leeper of Leeper Cattle Co. who was describing the funding he received through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).
“I was very surprised to learn about the funding. It kind of seems to me that the funding is complicated to get but worth it once you get it,” said Hoffman of West Chester.
Leeper, who has had several projects partially funded through NRCS’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), said the process was lengthy but not difficult.
This year marks the 75th anniversary of NRCS, which works with landowners through conservation planning and financial assistance to benefit the soil, water, air, plants and animals so the land can be productive and ecosystem healthy. According to NRCS, 70 percent of the nation’s land is privately owned, making stewardship by private landowners critical for the health of the environment.
“Our mission statement is helping the people help the land. There are more opportunities than ever for participation,” said Michelle Lohstroh, assistant state conservationist, special projects coordinator in Ohio.
Under the 2008 Farm Bill, NRCS’s programs were extended and in some cases expanded. For example, last year NRCS created the EQIP Organic Initiative, which provides $50 million in financial and technical assistance nationwide to existing organic farmers and growers transitioning to organic production systems.
USDA is starting to provide more money that is managed by NRCS for specific conservation efforts in areas of Ohio and other states. For example, last month USDA announced it was allocating $6.4 million to Ohio landowners for conservation efforts in the Lake Erie watershed. The funding is part of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and is available through existing NRCS conservation programs, including EQIP, the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP), the Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program (FRPP) and the Emergency Watershed Protection Program Floodplain Easement Program (EWP-FPE).
Ohio also is part of a new pilot project under the “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” initiative in which farmers can receive funding through EQIP for one high tunnel per farm to increase the availability of locally grown produce in a conservation-friendly way.Another recent change with the NRCS program is that farmers who sign a contract for funding will be held more accountable to fulfill that contract than they were previously, said Chris Coulon, public relations specialist for NRCS-Ohio. Because money is allocated for specific NRCS programs, if a farmer does not follow through with his conservation plan, the unused funding usually goes to the U.S. Treasury and not back to NRCS.
“It’s a loss because when that money is tied up and not used, it usually goes to programs that don’t benefit agriculture,” Coulon said. “We recently had an audit and became more aware of (contracts not being fulfilled) so we’re having to terminate contracts that clearly will not be able to fulfill the requirements and trying to make people more aware of liabilities.”
NRCS also has been working on creating partnerships to promote conservation efforts. For example, NRCS has teamed up with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Forestry to offer Ohio forest owners funding and technical assistance to improve their forest health and value. EQIP has more than $800,000 dedicated to forest landowners so they can install or implement structural and management practices on eligible agricultural land including private forests.
NRCS officials in Ohio have been trying to reach out to socially disadvantaged or beginning farmers such as Hoffman who know little or nothing about their programs. For example, those farmers are eligible for EQIP payments of up to 90 percent of the estimated incurred costs and income foregone of certain conservation practices.
“A lot of times people don’t even know what funding options there are,” Lohstroh said. “There’s a lot of program information on our website and it’s a great way to start because it has application information there and eligibility criteria is listed.”
Farmers interested in NRCS funding are urged to visit their county NRCS office before applying for a specific program so they can work up a whole-farm plan to identify what funds are available through NRCS and other state and federal agencies, Lohstroh said.
“Get some ideas of what you might like and go in and see what they have to offer. It’s not a difficult process,” said Leeper who used EQIP money to put in a heavy use pad, fertilizer dike, manure storage barn, waterways and fencing. “They really helped me out a lot. I recommend visiting farmers who have done it and then contact your local NRCS and start researching it. I did it because somebody’s going to get that money, and it may as well be me.”
A glance at some of the NRCS programs
Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP): One of the most popular programs, it is designed for producers who actively use their land for agriculture or non-industrial forest production. Both technical and financial assistance is provided for management and structural conservation practices that address natural resource issues such as soil erosion and water quality. Examples of practices are prescribed grazing, crop residue management, tree and shrub planting and filter strips.
Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP): This program is designed for private landowners to address wildlife habitat creation and restoration on agricultural land or non-industrial forest land. Technical and financial assistance is provided to address natural resources issues related to wildlife such as invasive species control and wetland creation.
Emergency Watershed Protection Program-Floodplain Easements (EWPP-FPE): This program is for landowners who have floodplain lands that have been impaired within the last 12 months or that have a history of repeated flooding. NRCS purchases conservation easements on the land and restores the land to its natural condition.
Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program (FRPP): This program helps keep productive farm and ranch land in agricultural production. NRCS provides matching funds to acquire conservation easements on farms that are part of an existing state, tribal or local government or non-governmental organization farmland protection program.
Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP): This program offers landowners the means to protect, restore and enhance wetlands on their property through perpetual easements, 30-year easements or Land Treatment Contracts.