Organic Broadcaster

NRCS retiree offers tips to help landowners access USDA conservation programs

By Jean Stramel

As a recent retiree from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), I can look back with satisfaction on the experience I had working with hundreds of producers in Kansas, Wisconsin and Wyoming, as a Soil Conservationist and Grazing Lands Specialist. NRCS employees take the NRCS “Helping People Help the Land” motto seriously, deriving satisfaction from helping producers identify and find solutions to improve their land and their economic bottom line. Based on my experience, I can share an insider’s view on ways a landowner can increase the chance of having a positive experience when asking for technical or financial assistance through USDA programs.

First, a brief history of USDA conservation technical assistance. In March of 1935, clouds
of topsoil from the Great Plains swept over Washington D.C. and other eastern cities, darkening the sky just as Congress commenced hearings on a proposed soil conservation law. Hugh Hammond Bennett and others garnered the support they needed to pass the Soil Conservation Act, creating the Soil Erosion Service, later known as the Soil Conservation Service and eventually NRCS (1994). As society increased the demand for resource conservation, NRCS programs and policies expanded to include practices addressing water and air quality, wildlife, habitat and ecosystem degradation, to name a few.

Because interest in these conservation programs now is so high, the process for allocating funds has become competitive, with a ranking system to determine who gets funding. There are two ways to receive assistance from NRCS: either as technical help from NRCS staff, or financial help by participating in a NRCS program. Conservation Technical Assistance (CTA) is for producers who just want a conservationist to come to the farm and discuss problems and solutions. Sometimes a person unfamiliar with a farm can see a problem that a farmer overlooks because he or she sees it every day.

Those submitting an application for financial assistance through a conservation program can make the process a bit easier and improve chances for funding by following certain steps. Keep in mind, all USDA programs are voluntary, and there is no guarantee of funding.

Tips for Landowners
To be prepared to take advantage of NRCS offerings, start by understanding your farm. Get out and walk it in all seasons and conditions. Take a map or aerial photo and mark important things like fence-lines, water sources, old trash dumps, woodlots, and anything that stands out as something of significance. As the land manager, consider what is important. Are fences positioned for efficient and safe animal movement? Are crop fields showing signs of erosion? Are woodlands being invaded by invasive species? Are the plants growing on the farm desirable? What would be desired instead?

Have a plan or vision for how the farm should function to provide the livelihood you desire. Every good business plan starts with setting goals and having a vision for sustainability in mind. Then subsequent decisions can be weighed against whether they lead toward or away from that goal.

Once resource concerns have been identified, schedule a visit to the local NRCS field office for a discussion of whether the identified needs fit into any program offerings. Too often a producer has read an article about a program and approaches assistance with the attitude of “What can I get from NRCS?” The conservationist probably does not know the farm so can hardly answer that question. A farm walk-over will reveal resource needs, but having issues identified as a starting point of discussion is very beneficial.

Program applications are ranked against others who have also applied. Projects which address more resource concerns usually score higher in the ranking process, because they result in higher environmental benefit. An application which creates wildlife habitat, addresses non-point source pollution by controlling how and when livestock access a stream, and fixes an erosion problem will probably score higher than one which only fixes the erosion.

If you are new to your farm or just new to organics, you can apply for a Conservation Activity Plan (CAP) which helps transitioning-to-organic producers by addressing the natural resource concerns of their operation. This is available under the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP). The CAP must be prepared by a NRCS-certified technical service provider (TSP) in order for the producer to receive financial and technical assistance from NRCS. According to the USDA Fact Sheet available on the NRCS website, “The Resource Inventory (section one) of the CAP 138, when submitted with the Resource Inventory Supplement, contains the required components of an Organic System Plan. Current National Organic Program regulations do not require the use of a specific OSP. The use of the Resource Inventory and the Resource Inventory Supplement document for this purpose is optional, but producers should check with their organic certifier to learn their preference.”

The Technical Service Provider and transitioning-to-organic farmer work together to develop this plan the first year, and then apply in subsequent years to implement the activities recommended in that plan. Practices can be planned over multiple years of a contract, so you would not need to implement them all at once. The payment rate is designed to cover approximately 70% of the cost, so the remaining cost will come out of your pocket.

Landowners can learn how to prevent washouts like this one by working with a National Resources Conservation Service planner. Photo by USDA NRCS

Beginning, socially disadvantaged and historically underserved folks can get more than that rate. You should discuss whether you qualify for one of these categories with your NRCS District Conservationist. There are fact sheets and more information about the Organic Initiative on most state NRCS websites.

MOSES Organic Specialists have experience with these NRCS programs and knowledge of the various practice standards available. Once you have a basic idea of the resource concerns you may want to address on your farm, you can contact MOSES to learn more about the benefits and challenges of various practices, and learn how to obtain any permits necessary so your application will have a better chance of being successful.

The numerous NRCS practice standards can be especially useful when your farm is not quite ready to obtain organic certification. If your farm has been in continuous row crops of corn and soybeans, you will need to change that rotation in order to meet the organic certification requirement of a soil-building rotation. NRCS practice standards for conservation crop rotation or cover crops offer payments to help you through that transition to a rotation that includes small grains and legumes, or includes crops grown specifically to protect or enhance soil health.

If you have ruminant livestock and need to improve your pasture health and livestock accessibility to meet the organic law, a Managed Grazing Plan can be written which incorporates NRCS practice standards such as rotational grazing design with interior moveable fences, animal walkways, forage improvement, and watering facilities, which would all help your farm meet the requirements of a certified organic livestock operation.
All applicants must meet program eligibility established through the congressional rulemaking process. If you are applying for financial assistance using a Tax ID number instead of a Social Security number, you must be considered an eligible “entity” by the Farm Service Agency (FSA), another USDA agency that is usually located in the same building as NRCS. Staff in either the FSA or NRCS office can guide you through the process.

Make sure you meet eligibility requirements and have the right ID numbers before you apply for funding. If you wait to do these things after you have applied for funding, they may not get processed through the federal system in time to meet program deadlines.

Some NRCS programs have a process which ranks applications as high, medium or low based on certain criteria including environmental benefit and whether all permits are in place. If a project will require a DNR permit, this should be initiated as soon as possible. Depending on the practice, some permits take quite a while to work through the system. If the permit is not in place at the time of ranking, the application will be given a low priority. If there are only a few applications and adequate funding, your application may get approved, but this is usually not the case. Typically there is a back-log of applicants and many get “deferred” to the next year’s funding.

USDA programs can be intimidating, but allowing plenty of time to complete all the steps is the best policy. Producers who are interested in future assistance should start with knowing their farm, identifying the issues of concern and getting all the “eligibility” items taken care of, as it will help the process go more smoothly, even though there is no guarantee of funding. If the project is not funded, take a look at addressing more than one resource concern, using a whole farm planning process and try again.

We all share the same environment, and the improvements you make on your land to protect and enhance your resources are a benefit to the greater ecosystem and human community. Typically, healthy land management results in long-term economic resilience and viability. Healthy soil, water, plant and animal communities are all addressed by NRCS programs, and NRCS technical assistance can help you become a better steward of your land, while improving your bottom line.

Jean Stramel worked for the Natural Resources Conservation Service for 21 years as a Soil Conservationist and Grazing Lands Specialist.

From the March | April 2015 Issue

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