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Look to USDA for conservation help

If you’re thinking about doing some conservation work on your land, you’d do well to visit the USDA Service Center that serves your area. You can get both financial and technical assistance. Depending on your situation and what you want to do, one can be just as valuable as the other.

The local USDA office houses the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Farm Service Agency, but in most cases it is also home to the local conservation district and representatives of state soil and water conservation agencies. State wildlife agency biologists, foresters and other conservation specialists work closely with that office, as well.

The local USDA office is the access point for federal programs, as well as local and state environmental programs, that offer assistance for a broad variety of conservation improvements on farm and ranchlands. You name a conservation issue or problem, and they probably have a number of conservation practices and voluntary programs that can help you address it.

Programs are available to make improvements on working croplands, grasslands and woodlands. There are also easement programs that will restore and protect those lands in the long term.

The NRCS national Web site lists standards for 167 different conservation practices. The practices include brush management, buffer strips, irrigation, waste management systems and more.

For a list and description of the practices, go on the Web to www.nrcs.usda.gov/technical/standards/nhcp.html.

NRCS can help you plan, apply and, in many cases, offer cost-share help for those practices. The assistance applies to pasturelands, forestlands and croplands. Besides soil protection and improvement, practices are aimed at improving water, wildlife and air resources.

Spending increasing

Good sign for conservation: Federal spending for conservation has increased in recent years. For example, the 2008 Farm Bill called for $4.2 billion in new funding for conservation over the five years of the bill. The $6 billion the farm bill authorized for 2012 for conservation spending is about 50% more than authorized for 2008, and double the amount authorized for 2002.

While Congress still has to appropriate the funds authorized by the farm bill each year, so far it has done that for the most part. And, despite tough budget times, Congress made a slight increase in operating and technical assistance funds for the NRCS in 2010, from 2009.

Expect competition, contracts

Because federal dollars are limited, applicants compete for funds from most programs. While programs are voluntary, they do have requirements and use contracts that specify what the farmer or rancher will do in the way of improving resources. That’s the case with the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. Funded at more than $1 billion in 2010, EQIP is by far USDA’s largest incentives program for installing conservation practices.

EQIP applicants can sign up at any time for one- to 10-year contracts to make improvements. The application is given an environmental ranking score and competes against other ranked applications when NRCS makes funding selections. Most offices are making 2010 selections through February; ask about special initiatives. For example, EQIP has a special Organic Initiative, which allocated $50 million in its own ranking pool of applications in 2009.

EQIP has generally made payments for up to 75% of the incurred costs and income foregone for conservation practices and activities. But certain historically underserved producers (limited-resource, beginning or socially disadvantaged producers) may get payments of up to 90% of the estimated costs.

Betts writes from Johnston, Iowa.

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HELP COAST TO COAST: Wherever you live, look to your local USDA office for help to apply multiple practices, including irrigation, windbreaks, contour buffers, terraces and more.

This article published in the March, 2010 edition of MICHIGAN FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2010.