If you have yet to see the benefit of USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) programs for your farm or operation, then this post is for you. And if you don’t have a clue where to start with those programs, then this post is also for you. Hang tight as Adam Heichelbech combs through the finer details.
As the assistant state conservationist for programs at Indiana’s NRCS, Heichelbech keeps his thumb on the vein of agriculture and all things NRCS. Simply, it’s his job.
Why bother with NRCS programs?
“Agriculture presents a ton of risk and challenges for farmers to deal with: droughts, floods, insects, rising input costs, just to name a few,” Heichelbech said. “We’re confident that the conservation measures can, and do, help mitigate those risks and better withstand those issues when they come along.”
Planting cover crops is one example Heichelbech presented as proof for the success of implementing conservation practices.
“We feel building soil health is the most important foundation for any farm to have high productivity,” Heichelbech said. “Farms that have a plant in the ground year-round tend to do better in a drought year than those that leave a crop field bare through the winter.”
As most producers know all too well, regulation is a huge aspect of production agriculture. While not a regulatory agency itself, the NRCS can help producers, of both plants and animals, meet regulations set forth by both the state and national government.
“Large livestock operations are regulated by the state,” Heichelbech said. “Our programs can help you formulate plans for getting into and remaining in compliance with those regulations. It’s probably the most important part of EQIP [Environmental Quality Incentives Program].”
Indiana has 15 million acres of land vested in agriculture. Of that 15, approximately 4 million of it is involved with the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and/or the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). That number dates back to 1996 when the programs first began. Roughly 80 thousand acres of Indiana land are enrolled in USDA-related easement programs.
“We would love to touch all farms that have yet to participate in our conservation programs, but we don’t have the funding for that just yet,” Heichelbech said. “But we’re always trying to reach new landowners and farmers.”
Where to Start
Although the NRCS accepts applications for their programs all year long, there are cut-off dates for the funding decisions. Heichelbech encourages everyone to get their applications in as early as possible so they can get signed up for the upcoming fiscal year.
“Starting early is good because the planning process takes time and it’s always ongoing with NRCS no matter how many programs a landowner/farmer participates in,” Heichelbech said. “Programs are competitive, and applications are ranked by the calculated environmental benefit, so making a thorough conservation plan for the application is truly key.”
Heichelbech advises visiting farmers.gov as step number one. “The USDA started the website to help landowners and farmers when they’re looking for information,” he said. “It has questions they can answer that will help guide them to the right agency or office for their specific needs.”
The second step is getting a conservation plan in the works. Any program the NRCS offers requires a conservation plan with the application. Luckily, the NRCS provides conservation planning as a free service, and it’s become a high priority in recent years.
“Ask a lot of questions when you’re working with a local office,” Heichelbech said. “Ask questions about what programs are available. To be specific, we provide additional benefits for historically underserved farms.”
Some of those underserved farms include those with limited resources, veteran-owned, minority-owned, young or new farmer-owned, etc. A producer might fit one of these categories without realizing it, which is why Heichelbech encourages visiting with a local office.
Even though taking advantage of NRCS programs can appear daunting, the agency is here as a resource for those who need it. It’s safe to say that Heichelbech firmly believes every farm can benefit from an NRCS program and would like to see more landowners and producers take advantage of everything they offer.