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U.S. Department of Agriculture is making up to $20 million available for new Conservation Innovation Grants nationwide, said Jimmy Bramblett, Wisconsin State Conservationist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).

Conservation Innovation Grants (CIGs) spark the development and adoption of cutting-edge conservation technologies and approaches for farmers, ranchers and other landowners.

'Conservation Innovation Grants have an impressive track record of fostering innovative conservation tools and strategies,' said Bramblett. 'CIG successes can translate into new opportunities for historically underserved landowners, help resolve pressing water conservation challenges and leverage new investments in conservation partnerships with farmers, ranchers and other stakeholders.'

Applications for national CIG projects are due by May 10, 2016. More information is available on the national NRCS CIG website. This year's application process includes two other significant changes: an increase in the maximum award amount to $2 million, up from $1 million in 2015, and a streamlined single proposal process.

Administered through NRCS, CIG is part of the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and is designed to focus on innovative conservation projects that promote science-based solutions to benefit both producers and the environment. Projects may include on-farm pilot projects and field demonstrations, and are funded to accelerate the transfer and adoption of promising technologies to landowners in order to address critical natural resource concerns.

In 2016, USDA is seeking national CIG applications for innovative conservation projects to benefit historically underserved agricultural producers, improve and protect water quality, and demonstrate the effectiveness of public private partnerships for conservation, sustainable agriculture and forestry.

Up to $2 million of this fiscal year's national CIG funding has been set aside for projects targeted to historically underserved and veteran farmers and ranchers, beginning farmers and ranchers, and those with limited resources. In 2015, for example, the Minnesota Food Association was awarded funds to assist with the transfer of proven conservation technologies used in organic systems to historically underserved producers in Minnesota and Wisconsin, and to assist those producers with implementing conservation practices by addressing land tenure issues and accessing NRCS programs.

In 2015, NRCS made eight CIG awards for projects in the burgeoning field of conservation finance and impact investing. For 2016, USDA is seeking projects that develop additional innovative investment strategies that leverage private capital for private lands conservation. CIG funding may be used to help mitigate risk associated with new conservation investment vehicles, through the use of approaches such as first loss strategies, price floors, guarantees, buyer of last resort mechanisms or other credit enhancements. Successful proposals will demonstrate a likelihood of success and clear metrics for conservation outcomes warranting the use of public funds to support risk mitigation strategies.

CIG awards are made through a nationally competitive process. Projects may be single or multi-year, but cannot exceed three years. Projects must involve EQIP-eligible agricultural producers or landowners. At least 50 percent of the total cost of CIG projects must come from non-federal matching funds, including in-kind contributions. The announcement for program funding can be found here on www.grants.gov. Completed applications should be submitted through www.grants.gov with a pdf to nrcscig@wdc.usda.gov.

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