A new approach taken by Natural Resources Conservation Service to determine the allocation of Environmental Quality Incentive Program funds invited input from multiple public agencies in multi-county working group meetings held this summer.
The Between the Lakes working group meeting — one of 20 such sessions around the state — involved Calumet and Manitowoc counties. It drew representatives of the Department of Natural Resources; NRCS county offices; Farm Service Agency; county soil and water conservation departments; Extension Service; the Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection; and the Glacierland Resource Conservation and Development Council.
Awarding of EQIP monies always requires a balancing of customer (landowner) needs, the available resources, the protection of natural resources and following the program rules, NRCS assistant state conservationist for water resources Tom Krapf pointed out.
What's new in the process is that "now you have a voice in it," Krapf told the 20 attendees. That change, particularly for the farmstead and forestry funding pools, allows the combinations of two, three or four counties to set the priorities and funding allocations within their own area rather than having proposed projects compete with those in other counties (a total of 22 in Wisconsin's northeast region) for the funds in those two pools, he explained.
A large portion of the farmstead funding goes to the installation of manure storage facilities. Other items in that funding pool cover manure pumps and transfer equipment, barnyard improvements and the installation of gutters to divert water.
In the past, only the cropland and pasture funding allocations were determined on a local basis. A particular urgency permeated this working group meeting because the attendees agreed the worst soil erosion they could remember had occurred in major portions of both counties in June of this year.
That experience was described as "very eye-opening" by one of the attendees. A demonstration at the meeting showed how water penetrated and mixed with soil far better in the sample taken from a fenceline compared to that taken from the adjacent cropped field, indicating far more runoff from the latter.
Another observation from the spring of 2014 was that the soil temperature in a fenceline was 3 degrees warmer than the soil in an adjacent field where tillage has been a consistent practice.
For 2012 through 2014, the EQIP funding totals for the two counties ranged from $480,334 to $699,791. The baseline funding for the 2015 federal fiscal year is $386,000, but that number could double or even reach $1 million, according to Krapf and Ty Larson of the NRCS district office in Appleton.
For the new fiscal year, the conferees decided to allocate 53 percent of whatever the available funding proves to be to the farmstead funding pool, 40 percent to cropland, and 7 percent to pastureland with nothing designated for forestry, for which there was funding in only two of the past four years in the two counties. One attendee reported that other local working groups in northeast Wisconsin had decided on percentages of 45 for farmstead, 40 for cropland, 10 for pastureland and 5 for forests.
One challenge in setting percentages was not knowing the amount of money available in advance, the attendees noted. Their concern was the possibility of not spending all of the funds designated for the four pools and losing it. Krapf and Larson reminded them that transfer of funds not spent by other counties is a possibility.
NRCS district conservationists Joe Smedberg of Calumet County and Matt Rataczak of Manitowoc County reported a backlog of approximately $1 million in requests within each county for the farmstead pool in EQIP. Each estimated a backlog of about $200,000 on cropland requests along with about $50,000 for the pasture funding pool in Manitowoc County alone.
Given the expected baseline funding, the attendees noted a single request for manure storage would account for most of the year's allocation because of the existing rule that allows a cap of $175,000 for a project. They agreed that the purposes of the EQIP program might be served better if four allocations of about $50,000 were made instead.
To lower the cap, however, approval would be needed from the state's NRCS technical committee. The Between the Lakes local working group decided to submit such a request.
Other expressed recommendations were that manure storage units, which are governed by the Wisconsin Pollution Discharge Elimination System, should not be eligible for EQIP, nor should multiple grants be awarded to an owner for the same type of facility as dairy herd sizes are increased.
There were no pending requests for forestry funding through EQIP in the two counties. The attendees agreed that it would be appropriate to accumulate any requests and then approve a percentage of the funding in a later year.
For each of the four funding pools, the attendees were asked to identify the five most important "resource concerns" from a provided listing. The participants' choices were then totaled for a one to five ranking. Later, they would be asked to indicate what specific practices would best address those concerns.
"Water quality degradation" emerged as the top resource concern for the cropland, farmstead and pastureland categories, while for forests the top concern was inadequate habitat for fish and wildlife.
In order, the other top concerns with cropland were soil erosion, degraded plant conditions (invasive species, forage quality, specie changes), soil quality degradation and inadequate habitat for fish and wildlife. Soil quality degradation stood second on the pastureland concern list, followed by soil erosion, degraded plant condition and fish and wildlife habitat.
On the farmstead concern list, soil erosion placed second, followed by soil quality degradation, excess water and limitations on livestock production. Water quality concerns ranked second in the forest category, followed by soil erosion and soil quality degradation.
After identifying the concerns and setting the goals, the attendees were asked to select five conservation practices that were most likely to achieve those goals. They chose from a list of 80 items that would be appropriate for one or more of the four land uses.
For cropland, the top choice was residue and tillage management (minimum tillage and direct seeding), followed by the growing of cover crops, planting in critical concern areas, the establishment of grass waterways and nutrient management programs.
On pastureland, the five choices were prescribed grazing practices; forage and biomass planting; resource protection on heavy use areas; installation of animal walkways or trails; and fencing.
In the farmstead category, the selections were waste (manure) storage facilities, water diversion, roof water runoff control structures, manure transfer equipment and roofs and covers on manure storage units. Because no funds are being allocated for forests, no priority choices on practices were made.
As a final step in the new process, the attendees were asked to assign a total of 250 points, based on five criteria, to the importance of each criterion in allocating funds. Those local points will be part of the 900, which include state and national NRCS input, that will determine which projects are funded.
In the cropland category, the attendees awarded 65 of the 250 points each to whether the application includes structural practices designed to control ephemeral/classic gully erosion and whether the application addresses several of the high priority practices chosen by the local working group. Only 20 of those 250 points were assigned to whether the applicant has not received financial assistance in the past for implementing a similar practice.
For pastureland, 70 of the 250 points were given to whether the project would involve fencing and/or access control when livestock are grazing in an environmentally-sensitive area. Another 50 points each were given to whether prescribed grazing would follow the conversion of more than 50 percent of the land parcel from cropland to pastureland and to whether the new practice would be tied to a related conservation program plan.
In the farmstead category, 65 points were assigned each for waste management practices that would prevent the spreading of manure on shallow soils from Feb. 1 to April 30 and for implementing practices that would address all of the manure management prohibitions described in the Department of Natural Resources NR 151 regulation.
Of the 900 points, the state assigns 400 (heavily weighed on process). The 250 national points cover 25 different items worth five to 15 points each.