(Tompkins Weekly, 11-22-23, by Eric Banford)
The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has many programs beneficial to farmers, ranchers and forest landowner. The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) is one such program that we are utilizing for our farm in Danby, NY. We are participating in a cost share incentive program to establish pollinator habitat on our land, something we have been working towards for a number of years.
Our farm site contains almost nine acres of southern sloping, open fields which were once part of a hundred acre family farm. We have been slowly expanding a veggie garden, planting fruit trees and nut trees for an edible food forest, and learning about Permaculture, a practice based on Indigenous knowledge of working with nature. Much of the land has been untended for years, save for annual cutting for hay.
We share the land with grassland nesting birds like Meadowlarks and Bobolinks, species with decreasing populations due to loss of habitat. We have an abundance of knapweed, asters, Canadian Thistle, and Reed Canary Grass; pioneer plants that take over untended land. Our hope is to preserve space for nesting birds while transitioning to a more diverse mix of flowers and trees that support native pollinators. That is where the EQIP program comes in.
The NRCS website notes that, “EQIP provides technical and financial assistance to agricultural producers and forest landowners to address natural resource concerns.” The first part of our plan paid for a Technical Service Provider (TSP) to do an assessment of our land and write up a long term plan to establish pollinator habitat. We have been working with Miguel Berrios of LBS Ecological, who walked the land with us, identifying native plants and invasives, noting hydrology patterns, and talking about how we could transition to a diverse mix of pollinator plants. He drafted a thorough plan with maps, timing of discing and cover crops, species lists, and more. It was hard but fun work, and we learned a lot about the land.
This assessment was paid for by the first part of our EQIP grant, and it was then submitted for part two: implementation. This part can take a while depending on circumstances since funding, demand, and staff resources vary each year. The second phase requires even more detail as it includes costs for labor and materials to accomplish the plan. Erin Kurtz of our regional NRCS office came out to talk this through with us and Miguel; the hope is to move forward this spring and to have our land transformed over the next two or more years. It’s ambitious and will require lots of work.
EQIP only covers a percentage of the full cost, and the percentage depends on a number of factors. The goal is to help those who want to improve their land in any number of ways to be able to afford it. It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement as the improvements can lead to cleaner water and air, healthier soil and better wildlife habitat (such as for pollinators in our case), and more, which benefits us all.
“We help provide the technical and financial resources so agricultural producers can continue farming as part of their business amongst other values that aren’t always part of their business management plan,” shared Kurtz. “Habitat restoration doesn’t always produce a crop or income directly, but there are other intrinsic values that it provides.”
Berrios shared about successful projects he’s worked on, saying, “Last fall we met at a field that we’d done for a training session of NRCS and Soil & Water folks. It was a cool way to see something that was a success in terms of habitat value and could also be used as an educational tool for folks who will hopefully be able to make a lot more of this habitat happen.”
“Being a technical service provider opens up doors and allows me to help people who get funding who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to accomplish the work on their own,” Berrios continued. “I’m seeing a lot of potential habitat being funded that otherwise might be turned into corn fields. It’s being created because the government knows that there are benefits that aren’t strictly from a farm income perspective.”
EQIP financial assistance is available through several conservation initiatives, including: High Tunnel, Organic, Air Quality, Landscape Conservation, and On-Farm Energy. Applications for NRCS conservation programs are accepted on a continuous basis; however, you need to apply by state-specific ranking dates to be considered for the current funding cycle.
For more information about the program, visit www.nrcs.usda.gov/conservation-basics/conservation-by-state/new-york
Eric Banford lives in Danby, NY where his family is designing an edible food forest on their permaculture farm.
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