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CSP aids farm’s green regime

More than four decades of conserving soil and attracting wildlife is paying off for the Bensink family of rural Pleasantville in southern Iowa. The Bensinks signed a five-year contract in 2010 to receive payments through USDA’s Conservation Stewardship Program, or CSP, to further enhance their environmentally friendly 468-acre farm.

CSP provides financial and technical assistance to help land stewards further conserve and enhance soil, water, air and related natural resources on their land. The program, administered by USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, encourages farmers to address resource concerns by undertaking additional conservation activities and improving and maintaining existing conservation systems.

Key Points

Versatile CSP program increases conservation opportunities on farm.

Bensinks use a number of practices to hold precious topsoil on the land.

They’ve installed habitat to attract migrating birds and prospective hunters.


The Bensinks moved to their original 400-acre farm in 1965. Today, Jack Bensink, a Marion County Soil and Water Conservation District commissioner, farms 320 cropland acres. The rest of the farm is in the Conservation Reserve Program, timber, switchgrass, and housing for pheasants, chukar and quail they raise for the Bensink Farms hunting preserve.

Make most of every acre

When farmers apply to enter CSP, the applications are ranked in eight separate natural resource areas: soil quality, soil erosion, water quality, water quantity, air quality, plant resources, animal resources and energy. The applications with the highest overall rankings are the ones that are accepted.

Local NRCS district conservationist Jay Jung says Jack Bensink and his father, Henry, ranked high overall because of the diversity on their land and their resource protection activities. “This family has a relatively small operation, but what makes them unique is they try to get value out of every acre,” says Jung. “That value comes in their hunting preserve, along with good stewardship on their cropland. This includes limiting soil compaction, using soil erosion control practices and also using renewable energy practices.”

No-tillers for 25 years

Henry says they have no-tilled all of their cropland for about 25 years. In addition, the family has applied erosion control practices like contour buffer strips, terraces, field borders and grassed waterways. He says there is no doubt these conservation practices help reduce soil erosion and improve soil quality, but he says those aren’t the only benefits.

“Conservation farming is an advantage in the long run for your bottom line,” he notes. “It takes less machinery, less fuel and less time to farm this way.”

Many of these practices, like contour buffer strips and filter strips for water quality, also provide good habitat for birds. “It’s great for hunters,” says Henry. “They can walk around in a clean soybean field, and their dogs can work in the grass.”

Includes renewable energy

Jack also believes strongly in renewable energy. He recently received grants through the USDA Rural Development Agency’s Rural Energy for America Program, or REAP, to install a wind turbine and solar panels. The wind turbine is already hooked to the electrical grid, and the solar panels will be soon. Jack says he wanted to install a wind turbine years ago but was just recently able to get the local energy company onboard. “The wind blows a lot here most all the time, and I thought we were wasting an opportunity by not taking advantage of it,” he says.

Tom O’Connor, coordinator of the CSP for NRCS in Iowa, says the stewardship program rewards farmers who are already making good conservation decisions, but the program also requires participants to take additional conservation measures.

These measures are called enhancements, with more than 100 of such options or activities available through CSP. The Bensinks are choosing an animal enhancement activity called Shallow Water Habitat, which is basically a small pond or wetland to hold water seasonally. The Bensinks feel they have the perfect 5-acre site for this practice that will attract wildlife that needs shallow water to lay eggs. NRCS engineers are designing the new shallow water area to be completed this year.

For more information about CSP, visit your local NRCS office, or see www.ia.nrcs.usda.gov/programs/csp2010.html.

Johnson is a public affairs specialist for USDA-NRCS in Iowa.

Organic Initiative deadline

Iowa farmers must apply by March 4 to receive financial assistance in fiscal year 2011 through USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program Organic Initiative. This year nearly $1.4 million is available statewide for applying organic farming practices. In the last two years, Iowans received nearly $5 million through the initiative.

Farmers who transition to organic agriculture can receive special assistance for meeting their conservation goals with the initiative. In addition, previously certified organic producers can receive EQIP assistance for applying new conservation practices to their operation to treat a natural resource concern.

Under EQIP, the Natural Resources Conservation Service helps farmers apply soil and water conservation practices to optimize environmental benefits on working ag lands. Some practices include cover crops, nutrient and pest management, prescribed grazing, residue and tillage management, and seasonal high-tunnel systems for crops.

Certified organic operator must submit plan

Applicants with certified organic operations must submit a copy of their current Organic System Plan, or OSP, to NRCS. Producers who apply for assistance to transition their operation to organic production are required to submit a self-certification letter stating the applicant agrees to develop and implement conservation practices consistent with an OSP. All Organic Initiative applicants must provide the name and contact information of the USDA-accredited agent who certified the organic operation.

Organic producers can receive up to $20,000 per year, or $80,000 over six years. To apply for an EQIP contract, visit a local USDA Service Center. More information about the Organic Initiative is at www.ia.nrcs.usda.gov/
programs/OrganicInitiative.html
.

Water standards toughen

The Iowa Environmental Protection Commission in January tentatively approved a plan to impose stricter water quality standards in nearly 160 lakes in the state. The standards, which the Iowa Department of Natural Resources designed to protect swimmers, could impose restrictions on farms and other economic activity around the lakes as a way to improve water clarity.

DNR will hold hearings at several Iowa locations starting Feb. 22 and gather public comments before DNR develops final rules and presents them to the EPC later this year. DNR had originally planned to end the comment period in March but was instructed by EPC to accept public comments through April.

Water clarity data lacking

Chris Gruenhagen, government relations counsel for Iowa Farm Bureau, says lake water clarity data developed by DNR has insufficient accuracy to set regulatory standards and would impose economic burdens on Iowa’s communities. A study to determine water-sampling accuracy indicates more water samples are needed to accurately represent annual water quality and achieve even a 50% margin of error. “The EPC’s recommendation has resulted in a rule-making that is unreasonable, arbitrary and capricious,” says Gruenhagen.

EPC commissioner Dave Petty, a Hardin County cattleman, questions whether DNR has developed strict lake-water quality criteria specifically to add more lakes to the list in the future. “I’m all for clean water, but does it make sense to have criteria that we can’t ever meet?” he asks. DNR officials indicate 75% of the lakes on the list would likely be considered impaired under the proposed standards.

Gruenhagen wanted EPC commissioner Susan Heathcote to abstain from voting on the rules because Heathcote is employed by the Iowa Environmental Council. Heathcote’s employer has come out strongly for using strict numeric nutrient criteria to develop water quality standards. Heathcote voted in favor of the rules.

DNR specialist John Olson told EPC the number of impaired waterbodies in Iowa rose in 2010, but not because pollution is worse, but the list is “much less a reflection of a shift in water quality in Iowa and more a shift in standards and testing.”

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SAVE SOIL: NRCS conservationist Jay Jung (center) works closely with the Bensinks (Henry, left, and Jack, right) to apply their conservation plan.

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HUNTING: Jack Bensink raises chukar partridge, along with pheasants and quail, for his hunting preserve.

This article published in the February, 2011 edition of WALLACES FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2011.