“That’s the real plus of it, that’s also really quantifying it,” Comito said. “We also need some good data, so we can get past some bureaucratic hurdles like crop insurance or something like that.”

risk reduction

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the array of conservation innovation grants announced Thursday will ideally reduce risk for farmers and give them options to show they can benefit financially from some of these practices.

“Getting farmers to do these (practices) is difficult because it often requires upfront costs and investment,” he said. “And it’s also important for farmers to see the benefits of that investment before we ask them to spend their own resources.”

Yet, not too long ago, practices like relay intercropping were considered prohibited by federal crop insurance administered by the USDA’s Risk Management Agency (RMA). Asked if crop insurance would be an issue for these trials, Vilsack said, “We’ve taken care of that.” He added that crop insurance had been tweaked last year when the department encouraged more double crop cultivation across the country. “RMA has also adjusted risk management so it is no longer a barrier.”

Two new nutrient management projects

During the university event, Vilsack announced $19 million for two new nutrient management projects specifically targeting nutrient management under the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP). One will go to a group, Family Farms LLC, that promotes the use of biochar in nutrient management plans to reduce nutrient runoff in parts of the Mississippi River Basin “so we don’t have the water quality challenges we’ve had in the past in the Mississippi Basin.”

A second watershed project funded by Environmental Initiatives Inc., which will build networks of farms and balance nutrient demands, called “nutrient sheds” where manure will be collected from livestock farms and processed through centralized anaerobic digesters.

Program created in 2014

The Regional Conservation Partnership Program was created in the 2014 Farm Bill as a strategy to address environmental concerns in larger watershed-scale projects. Groups that have used the program, however, recently complained about the complexity and hundreds of hours of work involved in going through applications for those projects.

Vilsack has sidestepped some of that criticism, pointing to $19.5 billion in funding for conservation programs under the Inflation Reduction Act and applying for programs for producers as individuals, as well as partnerships at different levels and scales, such as conservation innovation grants. For RCPP projects, they are expected to be regional projects that require more work

“We’re dealing with larger-scale watersheds, so you’re naturally going to get more groups and larger groups that have the ability to do more in a larger area,” Vilsack said. “We have a suite of options, which we didn’t have before. And now with the climate-smart partnership initiative, which we didn’t have before, I think people can find a place for support and help if they want to.”

Extension of technical assistance

In addition to funding projects, USDA also announced two agreements to expand technical assistance for nutrient management. The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has signed a memorandum of understanding with the American Society of Agronomy (ASA) and its International Certified Crop Advisor (ICCA) to refer people to participate in NRCS’s technical service provider program. The program will certify people who will be able to help growers and landowners with nutrient management plans, for example.

A second agreement was reached with Land O’Lakes subsidiary Truterra, which will also work to develop nutrient management programs and increase the technical capacity of producers and landowners. Ideally, Truterra would provide technical assistance to producers as well as help enroll farmers and landowners in other NRCS programs.

The expansion of technical assistance to crop advisors and Land O’Lake comes as lawmakers question whether NRCS has the staffing capacity to expand technical assistance. At a congressional hearing last month, congressmen asked Vilsack if more could be done to provide conservation technology assistance to crop consultants.

For a complete list of Conservation Innovation Grant projects, visit https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/.

Also see “USDA Releases $1 Billion to Boost Rural Renewable Energy Grants” at: https://www.dtnpf.com/….

Chris Clayton can be reached at [email protected]

Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN

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