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USDA Commits $10 Million to Support Conservation Innovation

December 20, 2017

Anna Jones-Crabree, left, and her husband, Doug Crabree, right, discuss soil health with Amy Kaiser, NRCS soil conservationist, on their farm near Havre, Mont. 7/25/12. Havre, MT. Photo Credit: USDA

In the United States, we face very serious environmental issues, including water quality impairment, climate change, soil loss, and the decline of wildlife species. Farmers and ranchers have a critical role to play in addressing these challenges, and many have been using on-farm conservation systems for years. As conservation threats and challenges evolve, however, so to does the need for new tools and systems. In order to continue to support and invest in conservation innovation, on December 18, USDA announced the availability of $10 million in competitive grants offered through the Conservation Innovation Grant (CIG) program.

The application deadlines for CIG funding for FY 2018 is February 26, 2018, 5:00pm EST

Part of the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), the CIG program is administered by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and provides grant funding for the development, application, and demonstration of innovative conservation technologies and approaches. This includes pilot projects, field demonstrations, and on-farm conservation research.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) applauded NRCS’s selection of 2018 CIG priorities that will support organic farmers, grazing lands conservation, and soil health. These priorities send a strong signal about where conservation investment is needed in the years ahead.

CIG Basics

CIG projects function as a critical tool and stepping stone, to lead the transfer of innovative conservation management systems, approaches, and technologies to farmers and ranchers and into NRCS technical manuals and guides, as well as into the private sector.

CIGs bring a wide range of partners to the table to support innovation – state, local, and tribal governments, non-governmental organizations, and individuals are all eligible to apply. Grantees must match 50 percent of the funds provided by the CIG award through non-federal contributions, which can be either in-kind or cash contributions. Grantees are also responsible for providing the necessary technical assistance, and NRCS provides the technical oversight for the project.

To be a successful application, the proposed conservation approach or project must directly involve EQIP-eligible farmers or ranchers. For this FY 2018 CIG application period, 20 percent of national funds are set aside for projects targeting historically-underserved applicants, such as beginning and limited resource farmers and ranchers, or Indian tribes, including community-based organizations comprised of or representing them.

The CIG program has two components – “the National Competition” and the “State Competition.” This week’s funding announcement is for the national component. It is up to each state office to choose to administer its own CIG competition in FY 2018 using a portion of its state EQIP funding. The maximum award level for national projects is $2 million, while the maximum level for state projects is $75,000.

CIG 2018 Priorities

Each year NRCS identifies priority categories within the CIG funding announcement to prioritize new or emerging high priority natural resource issues. This year’s announcement included three priority areas: Grazing Lands, Organic Agriculture Systems, and Soil Health. NRCS has provided several examples of previous CIG projects that address these goals – including a project that NSAC and several member organizations spearheaded to evaluate NRCS conservation activities for sustainable and organic producers.

While NRCS recognizes that there is significant overlap between the three priorities, applicants must select one for each application, and they will be ranked and evaluated accordingly. Below we highlight the key considerations within each priority category:

Grazing Lands

 Within the grazing lands category, NRCS has identified the following three subcategories:

  • Grazing System Evaluation and Analysis
  • Improving Ecosystem Function and Resilience through Prescribed Burning Programs
  • Grazing Land Information Access Systems

Grazing System Evaluation and Analysis: NRCS recognizes the challenges associated with measuring the conservation outcomes for sustainable grazing management systems, so within this priority area, they are seeking proposals that will support livestock producers establish, obtain, maintain, and evaluate on-site data at the farm and ranch scale that quantify the effects of their grazing management decisions, systems, and strategies. CIG projects in this category must demonstrate and evaluate techniques, approaches, or incentives that encourage adoption of science-sound grazing land inventory and monitoring projects. Additionally, they should demonstrate how these grazing land monitoring programs lead to evaluations that ultimately influence adaptive grazing management decisions (such as stocking rate decisions, drought management, and mitigation plans that address wildfire, wet events, and more) to address natural resource goals and objectives. NSAC applauds NRCS for recognizing the critical role need for conservation outcomes data within this subcategory.

Improving Ecosystem Function and Resilience through Prescribed Burning Programs: Through this subcategory, NRCS looks to address the existing disconnect between the critical role that prescribed burning can play to improve ecosystem function and resilience and the low adoption rates of the prescribed burning conservation practice and plans. NRCS hypothesizes that low rates of adoption for prescribed burning may be attributable to social and cultural attitudes toward fire, as well as the scarcity of qualified prescribed burning professionals. To further investigate low adoption rates, they invite CIG proposals that include the development of new, and use of existing, decision tools that facilitate management and application of fire on rangeland, pastureland, and grazed forestland. Project developers are encouraged to engage the scientific community and Federal agencies when developing fire management tools and promoting fire management research. 

Grazing Land Information Access: Finally, NRCS invites CIG proposals that develop modern, efficient, innovative, affordable information access tools or systems that can make information regarding grazing land management (handbooks, technical notes, and reference materials) more accessible. Projects to address this goal may include new tools or systems in the form of web-based software for smartphone applications or other mobile applications. Tools or systems developed through these CIGs should be intended for conservation planners, technical specialists, agricultural producers, scientists, and other grazing land stakeholders.

Organic Agriculture Systems

Through the Organic Agriculture Systems priority within this CIG funding round, NRCS recognizes that organic farmers and ranchers face unique conservation challenges, and NRCS programs and practices play a critical role in addressing natural resource concerns on organic or transitioning to organic production systems. Additionally, the development, evaluation, and analysis of organic production systems remains challenging, despite growing interest and participation. Conservation practices – including, but not limited to, conservation crop rotation, reduced tillage, pest management, and cover crops, help conserve natural resources while simultaneously helping farmers and ranchers meet organic standards. For this CIG priority, NRCS requests proposals that will help organic producers establish, obtain, maintain, and evaluate conservation practices at the farm and ranch scale to support organic management decisions, systems, and strategies. Proposals within the organic CIG category must address one of the following priorities:

  • Development and demonstration of cropping and tillage systems that build soil health and overcome negative effects of tillage for weed control.
  • Demonstration of no-till or reduced tillage system for organic crops for improved weed management and erosion control
  • Demonstrations of organic farmers or ranches using edge-of-field monitoring to quantify conservation work on water quality.
  • Development of innovative crop rotations for organic transition to build soil health and lead to organic certification.
  • Development and demonstration of intercropping systems including cash crops, insectaries, and cover crops to increase biodiversity and manage pests.

Soil Health

Within the soil health CIG priority, NRCS has identified two strategies that proposals can address: Soil Health Management Systems (SHMS) and Soil Health Assessments.

Soil Health Management Systems: Soil Health Management Systems (SHMS) are a collection of NRCS conservation practices that focus on maintaining or enhancing soil health by addressing all four soil health planning principles: minimize disturbance, maximize soil cover, maximize biodiversity, and maximize the presence of living roots. A SHMS is a specific cropping system and contains practices that treat the entire field. Through this CIG priority area, NRCS invites proposers that support the adoption of SHMS in the following areas:

  • Economic/ financial case studies on successful SHMS
  • Develop, demonstrate, inform and promote design and implementation of SHMS that are location- and production system – appropriate, economically viable, and improve soil health/ soil functioning
  • Quantify and characterize the impacts of soil management practices across a range of soils, production systems, and climates
  • Quantify the impacts of cover crop presence, species mix, and management on soil water content and subsequent crop yield
  • Quantify and demonstrate the impacts of SHMS on nutrient losses through surface and subsurface pathways
  • Develop innovate ways to control pest problems
  • Quantify the potential increases in water availability and reductions in nutrient losses
  • Demonstrate formation and support of innovative soil health social networks that promote producer opportunities to try new approaches and technologies

Soil Health Assessments: Soil health assessments use indicators that can be measured and interpreted through quantitative or qualitative analysis using established protocols. These assessments can be done either in-field and/or in a laboratory. NRCS invites proposals that support the use of soil health assessments in the following areas:

  • Measure high functioning soils to aid in the identification of the potential long-term upper soil health status limits in various soils
  • Quantify potential values and rates of change of soil health indictors in response to climate, organic input chemical composition and placement, and soil management
  • Quantify, as a function of management practices, SHMS, inherent soil properties and/or climate, the rate of infiltration, available root zone, and plant available soil water and soil water retention
  • Quantify the impact on soil health by different types of grazing systems

How to Apply

The application deadline for CIG funding for FY 2018 is February 26, 2018, 5:00pm EST, and the application is available through www.grants.gov. You can learn about the CIG program through NRCS, as well as NSAC’s Grassroots Guide. NRCS will be holding a webinar for interested potential applications on January 11, 2018 at 4:00pm EST, which can be accessed here.

Categories: Conservation, Energy & Environment, Organic

3 responses to “USDA Commits $10 Million to Support Conservation Innovation”

  1. Robert Warrick says:

    I am interested in the Grazing Lands evaluation and initiative aspect of the Conservation Program under EQUIP.

    I have applied. Thanks

  2. My organic Muscadine vineyard was selected by the USDA/NRCS for soil health studies. Soil samples have been analyzed by the NRCS lab at Cornell University and results have been recorded.

    I want to use my organic farming methodology to train farmers for maintaining soil health.


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