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WAUPACA – Conserving soil and water resources was not a top priority for most of our nation’s early settlers, as they struggled to scratch out a living from the prairies and wooded lands.

That mindset changed during the early 1930s, known as the Dust Bowl years, when soil devastation by wind and water meant extreme hardship and loss of livelihood for many farmers, as tons of the nation’s most productive topsoil literally blew away.

The years of drought and the efforts of Hugh Hammond Bennett, a soil surveyor with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) who had spent 20 years investigating soils in every state, convinced the U.S. Congress and President Franklin Roosevelt to take action.

In 1935, Congress created a new federal agency, headed by Bennett, to lead a partnership effort with America’s private landowners and managers designed to conserve their soil, water and other natural resources.

Initially known as the Soil Erosion Service (SES), it soon became the Soil Conservation Service (SCS), and part of the USDA. In 1994, Congress changed its name to the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to better reflect the broadened scope of the agency.

For over 80 years, NRCS has been a pioneer in conservation, working with landowners, local and state governments, and other agencies to maintain healthy and productive landscapes.

Its soil scientists, biologists and other resource professionals provide technical conservation assistance based on sound science, and suited to a customer’s specific needs.

“Originally we worked with farmers and ranchers, but with the shift in our rural population, we now work with a greater variety of rural landowners,” said NRCS soil scientist Phillip D. Meyer. “This includes people who own as little as 5 acres, as well as those who might own 2,000 acres.”

NRCS staff members regularly attend farm shows throughout the U.S. to meet with landowners and inform them about the programs that are available to help improve the quality of their soil and water.

“We provide technical and financial assistance for implementing a wide variety of conservation practices, and participation in our programs is voluntary,” Meyer said.

NRCS staff can help convert fallow fields and cropland to high-quality wildlife habitat. Their technical advice ranges from the use of herbicides to prescribed burning. 

Beginning with a plan

“Most landowners get started by developing a conservation plan for their land,” said Renae Anderson, NRCS Public Affairs specialist. “Conservation planning and technical assistance are free, and help build a foundation for conservation practices and program assistance.”

Conservation Technical Assistance (CTA) can help land users:

• Implement better land management technologies;

• Protect and improve water quality and quantity;

• Maintain and improve wildlife and fish habitat;

• Enhance recreational opportunities on their land, and;

• Maintain and improve the aesthetic character of private land;

This assistance may include resource assessment, practice design, resource monitoring, or follow-up of installed practices.

Although the CTA program does not include financial or cost-share assistance, clients may develop conservation plans, which may serve as a springboard for those interested in participating in USDA financial assistance programs. CTA planning can also serve as a door to financial assistance and easement conservation programs provided by other federal, state, and local programs.

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EQIP

The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) is the primary program for financial and technical assistance for working farmland and forestland, according to Anderson.

“The new farm bill has incorporated the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP) into EQIP this year,” she said. “Wildlife habitat practices are included in EQIP, both for primary habitat restorations, but also for habitat inclusion on working lands, such as field border plantings, buffers, stream bank restorations and many other practices.”

Derrick Raspor, NRCS soil conservationist in Waupaca County, noted that NRCS can provide cost-share funding help with perimeter fencing, installation of waterlines, and a variety of other conservation projects.

“We can do anything from brush management in a forestry setting to helping with construction of manure pits, to assisting with crop management including no-till planting and planting cover crops,” he said. 

Conservation easements

Anderson said the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, offering wetland and grassland restorations, and the Conservation Reserve Program are good options for wildlife habitat. Grazing is also an excellent option for wildlife, particularly birds, and it improves soil health.

“Land protected by agricultural easements provides additional public benefits, including environmental quality, historic preservation, wildlife habitat and protection of open space,” she said.

Wetland Reserve Easements provide habitat for fish and wildlife, including threatened and endangered species, improve water quality by filtering sediments and chemicals, reduce flooding, recharge groundwater, protect biological diversity and provide opportunities for educational, scientific and limited recreational activities.

Raspor also noted that the Waupaca County NRCS staff also works closely with the county’s land and water conservation department that rents equipment. 

“The county currently has a six-foot no-till drill, and are in the process of purchasing a 15-foot no-till/interseeder drill that can be used for planting cover crops and for seeding,” he said. “Some counties also have manure equipment and fertilizer spreaders for rent.”

Soil survey maps

Among the most useful tools available to landowners and others involved in land management are NRCS soil survey maps, which are available to every computer user with Internet access.

Over the last decade counties have been mapped by NRCS soil scientists who placed the soil demarcation lines on new aerial photography in most of the counties.

“We can access the maps through a national website,” Meyer said. “Anyone can find the type of soil on their land, or on land they’re thinking of buying, plus a lot of other information that’s based on knowing the soil types, and we can now project that information right on a map.”

Information to help a prospective buyer determine the suitability of land for agriculture, forestry or wildlife habitat can be viewed on a soil map rather than having to search through the tables inside a soil survey book.

This information can be used by farmers looking to buy or lease land to help them determine how much they are willing to pay.

The online soil survey site is websoilsurvey.nrcs.usda.gov.

Each Wisconsin county has an NRCS office. “If you haven’t already done it, I encourage you to contact your local NRCS office because you’ll find that it’s worth the effort,” Raspor said.

“Our staff has a lot of knowledge about conservation practices that can help most farmers in some way to increase their operating efficiency, while improving the quality of the soil and water on their farm.”

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