Date: Oct 01, 2013
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Though the notion that “I’m from the government and I am here to help,” tends to have negative connotations for most agricultural producers, that may not be the case when it comes to the Natural Resource Conservation Service.

Established by the U.S. Congress in 1935 as the Soil Conservation Service, NRCS has expanded tremendously over the years and has the stated goal of being a “conservation leader for all natural resources, ensuring private lands are conserved, restored, and more resilient to environmental challenges, like climate change.”

Because 70 percent of the land in the United States is privately owned and the government has a vested interest in fostering environmental stewardship by private landowners, the NRCS is basically the governmental arm working “with landowners through conservation planning and assistance designed to benefit the soil, water, air, plants and animals that result in productive lands and healthy ecosystems.”

NCRS is funded by the Farm Bill and has dozens of programs to help owners of cropland, rangeland, grassland and pastures to adopt approved conservation practices.  During each farm bill cycle, the funds are allocated to specific programs with the grants accessed by individual farmers through their state Natural Resource Conservations Services office.  Each state has a state conservationist that runs the program.

In California, Luana Kiger is director of the program and second in-charge.  She recently told Western Growers that the programs are very well utilized by those growers who know about them, but said there is a lack of knowledge by a huge portion of the agricultural community.  She said the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) is the best funded of the NRCS programs and the one that is most applicable to WG members and other specialty crop producers.  Over the last several Farm Bills, approximately $70 to $100 million has been allocated to this program during each five or six year bill.  Though the newest Farm Bill is still being debated, the old Farm Bill and the EQIP program have been renewed by Congress.

Kiger revealed that the average NRCS EQIP contract awards the grower about $20,000 per project, with a $300,000 cap for any individual producer over the life of the individual Farm Bill (any six year period).  Participants whose projects NRCS determines to have special environmental significance may petition the NRCS chief for the payment limitation to be waived to a maximum of $450,000.  Kiger said this shows there are substantial dollars to be allocated so she did encourage those who are not familiar with the program to check it out.  However, she added that there are more applications than money so NRCS uses a ranking system that awards points to determine which projects to fund each year.  Typically, she said the funds stretch beyond the high-ranked projects into medium point projects but rarely does a low point project get funded.

To sign up, farmers can access an application on the NRCS website (NRCS California or NRCS Arizona) which also explains eligibility requirements as well as the type of projects that can qualify for financial assistance.  In general, EQIP is a continuous sign-up, voluntary, conservation program that provides financial and technical assistance for approved conservation practices based on a current conservation plan.  The purpose of EQIP is to promote agricultural production, forest management, and environmental quality as compatible goals; optimize environmental benefits; and help farmers and ranchers comply with environmental regulations.

A conservation plan is the basis for an EQIP application.  Applicants will need an up-to-date conservation plan that describes the conservation practices to be implemented, the timing of the implementation, the practice location, and the conservation benefit to be achieved.

A review of the success stories on the NRCS website reveals that a wide range of practices do qualify, including something as simple as replacing an old polluting tractor to designing a new irrigation system that saves water.

Anita Brown, public affairs directors for NRCS in California, said that while the application process might seem cumbersome and burdensome, it is not.  She urged growers to contact their local NRCS office so that a local representative can “demystify” the process.  She estimated that most applications and plans can be worked out in an afternoon with the help of NRCS conservation officer.  She added that NRCS staff will work with the applicant to not only identify potential projects and develop a plan, but to implement the plan once the funds have been approved.

This is a farmer program.  An eligible applicant must be an agricultural producer that is engaged in livestock or agricultural production, including forestry, or be an owner of agricultural lands, non-industrial private forestlands, or other lands on which agricultural products are produced and natural resource concerns can be addressed.  The farming endeavor must also be the producer’s main source of income.

A review of the success stories on the NRCS California site show that there are some specialty producers taking advantage of the programs, but Kiger admits many larger growers don’t apply, either because they don’t know about it or believe the red tape is too cumbersome.

Kevin Chiesa, a Hughson, Calif., grower traded an old, polluting orchard field tractor for a new, fuel-efficient model through EQIP.  “I am going to apply to do the same thing with two more old tractors,” said the walnut and almond grower and part owner of the Grower Direct Nut Company.

Chiesa says their operation received 50 percent of the cost of the tractor.  Kiger said there are different funding formulas for different conservation practices, but in general, 50 percent of the cost is what NCRS covers through the EQIP program.

Another farmer, olive grower Russ Lester, received funds to install a sprinkler system in his orchard, replacing a flood irrigation system on his Solano and Yolo County farms.

Northern California walnut grower Craig McNamara has completed several conservation practices with technical and financial assistance through the EQIP and a number of other NRCS programs, including Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP) and the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP).  McNamara used EQIP contracts to establish new orchards with drip irrigation, convert from flood irrigation to buried drip irrigation, convert to solid set sprinklers and micro sprinklers in his walnut orchards and establish tail water recovery ponds.  He also received EQIP funds to establish cover crops that provide nutrients, retain winter moisture and reduce runoff from the orchard.

Western Growers Vice President of Science, Technology and Strategic Planning Hank Giclas believes NRCS programs are underutilized by specialty crop producers.  “Our goal in publicizing this program is to make our members aware of the potential for funds to underwrite or defray the costs of key conservation projects,”  Giclas said.  “In this era of increased attention on practices that may improve water quality, we would encourage growers to investigate these funding mechanisms and provide feedback on their utility and ease of access.”

Giclas added that to the degree that the programs are perceived to be too cumbersome, difficult or do not address grower needs, Western Growers would take that information back to NRCS to try to help that organization better address the needs of specialty crop producers.

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