Tompkins Weekly 2-9-22
By Cathleen and Eric Banford
Farming is changing at a rapid pace. As we look past the industrial farming model, some of the fast-emerging focuses for small farmers are Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs), farm-to-table relationships, healthy lunch school programs and edible food forests. Benefits include added nutritional value, but beyond that, it supports a more interdependent lifestyle connected with home and with community.
The United States Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) offers voluntary programs to eligible landowners and agricultural producers, which provide financial and technical assistance to help manage natural resources in a sustainable manner. These programs directly and indirectly support sustainable farming through conservation practices. When we support conservation efforts such as these, it ends up supporting the integrity of our living experiences.
Through these programs, the NRCS approves contracts to provide financial assistance to groups and organizations. These funds help plan and implement conservation practices that address natural resource concerns or provide opportunities to help save energy and improve soil, water, plant, air, animal and related resources. These include resources on agricultural lands and non-industrial private forest land, according to the NRCS website.
Monarch butterfly caterpillar. Photo by Miguel Barrios.
The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) provides financial and technical assistance to agricultural producers in order to address natural resource concerns and deliver environmental benefits such as improved water and air quality, conserved ground and surface water, reduced soil erosion and sedimentation, and improved or created wildlife habitat.
The Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) helps agricultural producers maintain and improve their existing conservation systems and adopt additional conservation activities to address priority resources concerns. Participants earn CSP payments for conservation performance — the higher the performance, the higher the payment.
The Agricultural Management Assistance Program helps agricultural producers use conservation to manage risk and solve natural resource issues through natural resources conservation.
Through the Emergency Watershed Protection (EWP) program, the NRCS can help communities address watershed impairments that pose imminent threats to lives and property. Most of the program’s work is for the protection of threatened infrastructure from continued stream erosion.
“For the EQIP program, our application process isn’t very hard; it’s basically a two-pager to get established that you’re interested and then we come out,” said Erin Kurtz, district conservationist for NRCS.
Kurtz said that those interested in what NRCS has to offer should call the local office’s number, (607) 257-2737, before visiting the website, nrcs.usda.gov.
“The website is informative for giving the 10,000-foot view, but if you’re interested in applying, we can sit on the phone and go through the programs with you,” Kurtz said. “We’ll see what programs we have available based on their timeline and needs. We really just want to come out and talk about their goals and objectives.”
Kurtz said that this approach allows staff members to “identify other potential opportunities that they might not have known were available.”
“From there, we can develop a comprehensive, integrated conservation plan that will go through different iterations, and they can pick and choose what they want to sign up for based on their priorities,” she said.
For the CSP, Kurtz and others “work with applicants to identify enhancement activities [that] are above and beyond the base-level practice,” Kurtz said.
“Let’s say someone is cover cropping and we want to work with them more,” she said. “So, can we do a four-species mix? Can we incorporate legumes? What are some identified areas where we can enhance that base-level practice for soil health, for air quality, for all of the resource concerns that might exist for that area? Are there better ways to harvest or mow? Can we delay mowing to benefit grassland birds? Those are all practices people can do through CSP.”
There are set payments each year based on the number of resource concerns the land owner has met at the time of application, as well as their acreage base. They can get payments every year for up to five years.
“Some departmental priorities right now are on social equity, urban agriculture and climate change resilience,” Kurtz said. “Those come down department wide, and then we find better ways to do better outreach, establish better partnerships as we collaborate with available partners and advance those priorities. You get a higher payment rate if you’re a historically underserved producer, which are socially disadvantaged, beginning or limited resource farmers.”
Miguel Barrios, a technical service provider for NRCS’s EQIP program, described his approach through the lens of a pollinator habitat.
“We’re focusing on whether there are enough plants blooming, do we have the timing of the blooms throughout the year spread out well, making sure we have forage, nesting habitat and overwintering habitat,” Barrios said. “And we have leeway in the design to accomplish multipurpose goals. So, we can have a pollinator habitat that doubles or triples services for food, for fodder, for whatever the case may be. If you want to put it into a permacultural perspective, people are always trying to carry out multiple objectives.”
As part of the land assessment, Barrios will walk the property, noting what plants are present and where there were problem species like Canada Thistle, Knapweed or Canary Grass and topographic features and water flow. Then, he’ll compile a report that outlines a plan to move forward.
The plan will include site information, client objectives, existing conditions, desired future conditions and enhancement goals. There will be species checklists, property images, topographic and other maps and a proposed timeline for implementation.
Barrios works on local projects as well as some across New York and adjoining states.
“I work 100% of the way through planning and installation with some clients, and I do planning for people who do their own work or contract it out,” he said. “It’s been interesting working for the NRCS because I get to see a lot of working farms and lands. I get to see the farmer’s interest in increasing habitat value and acreage on their properties.”
“There’s ecosystem services these plans can bring, but they’re also bringing income for the people growing them, food and sustenance,” he said. “For me, it’s seeing the capacity for sustainable farming. It’s literally what I’m going out and helping people do.”
Barrios explained that EQIP “takes resource concerns that people have about their property and helps them manage them.”
“It’s amazing that we have funding to do habitat practices, so a lot of it is inspired by having government funding to have it done,” he said. “A lot of people want to install habitat, but there’s not often money when farmers come to the end of their season. Through these programs, it becomes accessible for almost everybody.”
In a time when so many farmers are struggling to earn enough and there is a driving trend for people to reimagine their lives in favor of a more grounded sense of self, NRCS programs offer refreshing and encouraging support for farmers, individuals and communities.
For more information, visit the NRCS website, nrcs.usda.gov.
Eric Banford is on the Board of the Finger Lakes Permaculture Institute, and Cathleen Banford is on the Board of Sustainable Tompkins. Together, they are designing an edible food forest on their farm in Danby.