Have you put together your checklist for winter farm planning?  Crop mix, rotations, grazing plans—all important to include.  But as you’re planning for spring planting and fall harvest, don’t forget to include conservation on your planning list. 


Conservation is an investment for future productivity.  And now is the time to make that investment.  Deadlines for many conservation programs – specifically at this time, for EQIP and related programs and CSP – are coming up.  So it’s time to make a visit to your local Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) office and fill out your application for the agricultural conservation program that can bring benefits to your farm and the environment.  All NRCS programs are designed to promote voluntary conservation practices on private working agricultural lands that also benefit the public.


EQIP—the Environmental Quality Incentives Program—deadlines for state rankings are approaching in most states and may even have passed in some.  Although you can submit your application at any time, if you want to be included in this year’s rankings, you will need to move quickly.  EQIP offers financial and technical assistance to agricultural producers to help plan and implement conservation practices to improve soil, water, plant, animal, air and related resources on agricultural land and non-industrial private forestland and to meet environmental regulations.  Contracts can run as long as 10 years.  The good news is that applications are accepted on a continuous basis.


EQIP also includes the On-Farm Energy Initiative to encourage energy conservation.  Through this initiative, NRCS can help in two ways:  assisting the farmer in developing an on-farm energy audit and then providing financial and technical assistance in implementing conservation practices recommended in the energy audit.  For fiscal year 2012, there are three application ranking periods with deadlines of February 3, March 30 and June 1.  Energy conservation is new to NRCS and getting an audit of the energy conservation opportunities on the farm or ranch is a great opportunity. 


For organic producers, there is the EQIP Organic Initiative, available to certified organic producers, those transitioning to organic production or producers selling less than $5,000 of organic products annually.  This initiative helps producers who want to develop a conservation plan or a transition to organic production plan, establish boundaries and buffer zones, improve soil quality and minimize erosion, improve pest management, develop a grazing plan, improve waste utilization and composting, increase irrigation efficiency or enhance cropping systems and nutrient management.  Again, three ranking periods with deadlines of February 3, March 30 and June 1.  This is a great opportunity for organic farmers, especially those with small operations.


Another option under EQIP is Conservation Innovation Grants (CIG).  Individuals, state and local governments, Tribes and non-governmental organizations can compete for CIG funding for innovative conservation approaches and technologies.  For FY 2012, there are two funding opportunities.  The first, with an application deadline of January 31, focuses on nutrient management, energy conservation, soil health, wildlife and CIG projects assessment.  March 2 is the deadline for the second, which covers market analysis of supply and demand for water quality credits, market rules and infrastructure.


The Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) provides funds to farmers and ranchers for undertaking additional conservation activities and improving and maintaining existing conservation systems.   The deadline for the first ranking period has been extended to this  week—January 27.  I’m pleased to see improvements in this program, and I encourage any of you who are interested in CSP to visit your NRCS office immediately.  Sign up is easy, so don’t hesitate.


Support is available for conservation—but you do have to apply.  As you’re making plans for spring, factor conservation into your planning and put your application in while there’s still time.  If you have questions about the programs, contact your District Conservationist at your NRCS office or go to http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/main/national/programs. For an immediate review of all of the possible conservation programs and offerings in your state, go to http://www.privatelandownernetwork.org/grantprograms/.


About the author: Bruce I. Knight, Principal, Strategic Conservation Solutions, was the Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) from 2006 to 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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