There is a large, underutilized pool of money available to organic dairy farmers.
Through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQUIP) Organic Initiative, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) provides technical assistance to producers who are certified organic, transitioning to organic, or exempt from certification.
The Initiative also supplies money to deal with natural resource concerns, such as developing grazing plans, pollinator habitat, buffers and manure management.
"If the funding is not utilized, it is transferred back into regular EQUIP," Sarah Brown, Oregon Tilth organic conservation specialist, said Jan. 16 during an eOrganic webinar. "There is tens of millions of dollars going back. This is really a huge opportunity of organic farmers that is going underutilized."
During "NRCS EQUIP and Organic Dairy Farms", Brown, who shared the presentation with Kevin Kaija, NRCS agronomist and grazing specialist from Vermont, described how organic dairy farmers can use EQUIP's organic initiative on their operation, just as she and her husband did on their Willamette Valley farm.
Payments are capped at $20,000 annually or $80,000 for an entire contract. Although the purse is much larger through the regular EQUIP program, Brown noted, the organic EQUIP is much less competitive. "You stand a very good chance to be funded," she said.
While signing up for EQUIP organic can be done year-around, projects are ranked at certain times. "If you are interested in this, it would be smart to get started now," Brown said, noting the 2014 ranking deadlines vary by state, but are in the near future.
The process begins with contacting NRCS, which will help develop a conservation plan for the farm that identifies resource concerns and applicable conservation practices. FSA also needs to be contacted to establish eligibility to participate in the Farm Bill program through official USDA farm records, including farm and tract numbers.
A good conservation plan begins with identifying the problem and goes on to include eventual operation and maintenance, Kaija said. For instance, there might be an undesirable water test. Objectives are determined, such as improving ground and surface water quality, and a complete inventory of resources is taken.
The alternatives or "recipe" for the conservation plan are formulated, evaluated and thoroughly discussed with the landowner making the final decisions. After agreement, contracts are signed and the plan is implemented and, finally, evaluated.
Communication is key throughout the process, Kaija underlined.
NCRS resource concerns are soil erosion and degradation, degradation of water quality and quantity, air quality, degraded plant conditions and inadequate habitat for farm animals and wildlife.
NCRS conservation practices address a certain resource concern. "They are put on the ground to help the landscape heal or become a better landscape for the farmer, either economically and ecologically," Kaija explained. In general, the practices should actually pay for themselves, he noted.
Available practices are typically interconnected and can vary by state. They target sustainability and resiliency and include composing, grazing systems, pollinator habitat and parasite control.
For instance, funds are available to implement rational or wholistic grazing, considered a more thoughtful approach to rotational grazing. "As with all conservation practices, we try to do a good job of least-cost alternatives," Kaija said, such as using temporary fences during dry times to get forage into the livestock as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Another example would be using cover crops, such as millet, oats, sudan grass or sorghum, where soil is uncovered or degraded. One farmer, for instance, plants millet, then utilizes the crop and nitrogen from manure gained by overwintering and grazing his heifers on that land.
Animal walkways, now considered "heavy use areas", are another example. The least cost alternative, which Kaija noted helps out everybody, including the taxpayer, is to locate cost-effective practices that meet the intent of the practice.
That means putting animal walkways in the right place, rather than lining them with gravel or a geotextile. For that, communicating with the farmer who understands the land, animal use patterns and weather conditions is of paramount importance, Kaija said, citing a local farmer's observation that "the best fertilizer on the farm is the farmer's footsteps."
Payment rates for fencing vary by state, region and year. An example would be a five-strand, high tensile fence with a stream livestock crossing. In Vermont, Kaija noted, that payment rate is currently $2/ft. for projects that meet CP standards.
Another livestock practice considered "quite important" by many is brush management and access control. Fencing might be used as an exclusion fix for sensitive sites and shrub land bird habitat, underlining the importance of a thorough inventory. "Everything is integrated in these systems to make them more efficient. The final result is more forage into your animals," Kaija explained.
Forage and biomass planting is a practice that speaks to the agency's focus on soil health. "We really like to see covered soil," Kevin said, noting the agency was formerly known as "Soil Conservation Service". Organic seed and soil amendments come in at higher rates and are figured that way. Soil testing and nutrient management may be included elements.
Conservation buffers may be underutilized in some farm systems. They offer a lot of value to the farm as they can serve multiple purposes, Kaija pointed out, such as edible landscape, honey bee forage, pollination and wildlife habitat, windbreaks, water filtration and to block pesticide and contaminant drift.
Manure management practices, in general, are in EQUIP pools. Talk to the local soil conservationist and find out the best available route to meet the CP objective, Kaija advised. "The conservation planners are there to help you," he said.
Structural practices are a large area that often involves engineering standards. Examples would be compost bedding pack barns and composting facilities, culverts under access roads, underground outlets, subsurface drains, sediment basins, roof runoff and other water control structures.
Vegetative practices use plants to reduce the amount of runoff, such as filter strips, grass waterways, plantings and cover crop. "These can offer your best bang for the buck," Kaija noted.
Pollinator hedgerows and habitat practices include a new EQUIP project focused on the Upper Midwest states that fits well into the multi-functional landscape approach. There is a pot of funds currently available for implementing honey bee forage and biomass planting, including organic pasture.
Another upcoming item of interest is portable livestock structures, which should be available in the next year or so.
The best way to implement a conservation practice is by understanding the requirements and following the established schedule. Communication is vital, Kaija said.
EQUIP projects are based on typical costs for implementation. However, beginning farmers, farmers with limited resources and socially disadvantaged producers are eligible for an increased payment of 25%. Some states, including Oregon, have organic/small farm payment rates. Ask at the local office.
Beginning farmers can use EQUIP, which is very interested in creating buffers, in a number of different ways including hedgerows and windbreaks, wildlife or pollinator habitats. Practices that build soil quality are also valued, such as cover crops, mulches and reduced tillage practices.
As a beginning farmer herself, Brown used the Organic EQUIP program to control roof runoff on the family's newly purchased big barn and for drainage systems.
Noting NRCS certifies installed practices before payments are made, which may be taxable, Brown said farmers may sign up for multiple FB programs on the same farm and can have more than one active EQUIP contact at any time on the same farm.
She encouraged users to start slow and easy. Since participants are locked into the payments available at the time, it is advisable not to lock in for too long because future payments might be higher. Most planners know what's reasonable to take on, she added, noting more often than not, the $20,000 limit is the biggest variable.
Visit Oregon TIlth at tilth.org/education-resource/organic-conservation-program for more information, including the NRCS EQUIP Organic Initiative factsheet. To find a local NRCS office, go online at www.nrcs.usda.gov, find the state and then "service center" or look in the front of the phone book.