Follow Your Conservation Dream! But Do it Quickly Because Signups End April 19

This post was written by Anita Brown, public affairs director, USDA NRCS California

Many organic farmers have dreams of a conservation project they would love to tackle: a multipurpose hedgerow; an efficient, water-saving irrigation system and schedule; a comprehensive plan to build soil organic matter; a hoop house to extend the growing season for local customers. However, the day-to-day demands of farming can leave those dreams stuck on a back burner.  For those who haven’t heard, there is a relatively new resource to help you get cooking on those projects, and over 200 California organic farmers have discovered it. You have until April 19 to apply this year to join their ranks.

 “I simply didn’t know about EQIP or NRCS,” says Bill Jessup who grows citrus in Thermal, California. The acronyms refer to USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) who provide technical and financial assistance. A popular farm bill program overseen by NRCS is the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). “I was interested in doing hedgerows and windbreaks, but I wasn’t able to tackle it,” says Jessup. “My buyer suggested I contact NRCS. The process was painless. Sam (the local conservationist) came to the farm and gave me ideas, but you don’t have to commit. It’s your choice. I ended up including not only the hedgerow in my conservation plan, but also nutrient and residue management—and EQIP helped me plan and fund it.”

Jessup isn’t alone.  Since the last farm bill established a special pool of EQIP funds just for organic farmers, both NRCS and the organic industry have been working hard to get the word out. This year about $3.5 million is available to help transitioning and organic California farmers protect their soil, water, air, and habitat resources. While several farm bill provisions expired in 2012, the EQIP program has received an extension to continue for fiscal year 2013.

Bettina Birch of Bee Green Farm in Three Rivers, California, was originally told her 14-acre diversified farm might be too small to participate in EQIP. But the plucky 22-year farming veteran wasn’t going to give up without “making some noise.” She did indeed land a contract—and Bettina put a twist on her hedgerow that was new to her local NRCS staff:  she included olives, citrus, currants, and blackberries to make her hedgerow deliver not only beneficial insects and shade, but edible goodies as well. 

 “I couldn’t keep the good news to myself,” Bettina said. She was so thrilled with her new conservation project she shared news of EQIP and NRCS with her ex-husband who also was awarded EQIP contracts. In a reflective moment, Bettina admits that the “system isn’t perfect.” After her success with the hedgerow, Bettina started a pumping and filtration system. She is still working through a few engineering bugs. Minor setbacks aside, however, she is a strong supporter of EQIP and NRCS. “One of the things I like the best is the encouragement, the moral support. The NRCS people told me, ‘you can do this—and I did.’”

Not all the EQIP contracts with organic farmers are small. Jerry Rebensdorf, president of the Fresno Cooperative Raisin Growers, farms 250 acres of currants, grapes, and raisins. While his family’s farming roots run generations deep, Jerry is the first to convert his farm to organic. He heard about the opportunities available from NRCS and EQIP in a conventional way—through a story in the newspaper—but once the idea sank in, Jerry realized there were many ways he could work with NRCS to develop a comprehensive set of conservation practices for his vines and land.

Mites had been an ongoing sore spot in his vineyards. After discussing the problem with Fresno NRCS staff, they suggested he adopt an integrated approach to combat them. His scheme included releasing a predatory insect. “It was time consuming, but it did turn out all right,” Jerry affirms.  Jerry and his NRCS conservationist also put together a plan for the farm that included cover crops and compost.

Any drawbacks to the process? “Well,” says Jerry, “with the government, there is paperwork.  But if you learn the rules and do it one year, it gets a lot easier after that.” Would he recommend working with NRCS and EQIP to other organic farmers? “Absolutely,” he summarizes. “It’s worked out really well.”

For Chriz Velez of Stella Luna CSA Farm in the Sierra Nevada foothills, it’s all too likely that the farm will still be getting snow when trees in the Central Valley are white with blooms. Not surprisingly, then, Chris’ conservation dream was erecting a hoop house (Chris calls them cold frames from years of working in horticulture). The modest climate control afforded by a hoop house offered the promise of getting different flavors to his customers earlier in the season, not to mention at least an hour a day freed up that was otherwise spent covering and uncovering sensitive plants. “We don’t believe in a lot of debt, and without EQIP we just couldn’t have done it,” says Chris. 

Chris also worked with Rebecca in the Fresno NRCS office to plan a hedgerow that will greatly increase the biodiversity of his farm’s landscape. The intention is to populate the hedgerow with California natives such as wild rose, coffee berry, and elderberry: plants that attract lots of beneficial insects without taking a lot of water. After years of planning hedgerows for customers, Chris finds it very satisfying to work with Rebecca to plan his own. “It’s like the car mechanic who always drives the junker,” Chris joked.  With the help of NRCS and EQIP he will drive his own hedgerow off the planning pages and onto the landscape in 2013.

Chris also enjoys the professional give and take of working with the NRCS technical specialists.  “We relearn as we try to explain to them what we’re working to accomplish, and they give valuable feedback.” Chris’ advice for those considering taking the EQIP-NRCS plunge: “Don’t be afraid to ask for help. We as farmers are so self-reliant. We try to do it all. When you can get help through a program like this, you should do it.”

NRCS technical assistance is available year round and conservationists like Alan Forkey, head of the farm bill programs for NRCS in California, encourages farmers to go visit their local office any time of the year to begin their conservation plan. “It takes most people a while to get familiar with the available services and start the discussion about conservation goals and options,” Alan says. That said, at some point during the year, NRCS conservationists have to “scoop up” the current applications, rank them, and offer contracts. This year’s scoop up date is April 19. There are 55 NRCS field offices in California. Find the one nearest you.