Improving your odds for getting a conservation contract

By Bruce I. Knight, Principal, Strategic Conservation Solutions

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

This year, as many as 50,000 farms could receive federal help in establishing or enhancing conservation practices that benefit their operations and also provide a public environmental benefit. Top priorities for major agricultural conservation programs under USDA's National Resources Conservation Service include such broad goals as improving water quality and quantity, improving air quality, sequestering carbon, reducing soil erosion and conserving wildlife habitat for endangered species. The challenge is that NRCS will receive two to three times as many applications as it can accept. Often farmers ask me how to improve their odds for receiving a contract.

Together we can feed the Bees

All NRCS programs are designed to encourage voluntary conservation practices on private working agricultural lands that also benefit the public. Technical assistance and cost-share funding help farmers improve conservation on their farms in a common sense way. NRCS programs have different objectives, requirements and payment limitations. But all of them require farmers to complete an application. Applications are then competitively ranked, based on national, state and local priorities, to determine which contracts receive funding.

So how can you improve your chances of getting your conservation contract funded? First, by knowing the national priorities as well as state and local priorities and determining how what you want to do on your farm matches those priorities. Then, select the most appropriate program to get technical or financial help.

Your first step is to sit down with your local NRCS representative - the district conservationist - at your USDA Service Center. He or she can explain conservation program priorities and options based on the goals you have established for your operation. Roll up your sleeves, ask lots of questions and listen to the advice you receive. Take your time and build a relationship. Maybe the DC will suggest applying for a different program. For example, although the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) is the best known conservation program with the largest share of funds, there is probably a backlog of applications for EQIP. Other programs like the Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program (WHIP) or the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) might be just as appropriate. After submitting your application, actively participate in the ranking process - your answers on the ranking sheet make a tremendous difference in the competitiveness of your application.

Work with your district conservationist to develop a conservation plan for your operation. The conservation plan serves as a long-term road map for managing your operation in ways that improve profitability and efficiency and minimize resources while enhancing the environment. It will take me the rest of my life to fully implement the plan for my ranch, but I have a game plan I follow as opportunities arise. And my partners in conservation at the local conservation district, NRCS, USFWS, Pheasants Forever and Ducks Unlimited are looking out for ways to help me.

Remember, despite national, regional or state priorities, all conservation is local. Identify how your plans fit with the environmental concerns and commitments in your area. Done right, conservation doesn't cost you money, it pays through increased productivity and reduced risk.

Finally, relationships matter. Getting to know your NRCS district conservationist and other conservation partners will make all the difference when it's time to make decisions that matter to you.

About the author: Bruce Knight is a principal with Strategic Conservation Solutions. Knight was the Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) from 2006-2009. From 2002 to 2006, Knight served as Chief of Natural Resources Conservation Service. The South Dakota native worked on Capitol Hill for Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, Rep. Fred Grandy, Iowa, and Sen. James Abdnor, South Dakota. In addition, Knight served as vice president for public policy for the National Corn Growers Association and also worked for the National Association of Wheat Growers. A third-generation rancher and farmer and lifelong conservationist, Knight operates a diversified grain and cattle operation using no-till and rest rotation grazing systems.

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