July 22, 2016
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association (OEFFA), an NSAC member organization. Their post highlights the benefits of the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) Organic Initiative, which provides financial and technical assistance to support the implementation and installation of conservation practices tailored to organic producers.
Despite the significant benefits that the Organic Initiative can provide for farmers transitioning to organic production, participation in the program continues to decline. With enrollment trending steadily down as demand for organic products continues to skyrocket, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC), National Organic Coalition (NOC), and the Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF) recently sent a letter to NRCS recommending key areas for improvement in the EQIP Organic initiative in fiscal year (FY) 2017. NSAC and our partners call upon NRCS to refocus EQIP-OI on organic conversion and transitioning farmers, while enhancing opportunities for already certified organic producers within general EQIP. For more on these recommendations, read the NSAC blog from last week.
From Cover Crops to High Tunnels: Octagon Acres Utilizes Funding to Transition to Organic
You have to travel almost to the Pennsylvania line to reach the farm. But just minutes off I-90, you can’t miss the large octagonal barn that gives the farm its name. Patrick Turner is the third generation to work this land, along with his wife Julia Barton. But, after years of continual conventional soybean plantings, as Patrick and Julia return to the land, they are switching gears. They have regeneration on their minds.
Patrick and Julia bring many years of diverse farming experience back to the family farm. Whether that work was on rural farms, urban gardens, or college farms, they have managed to keep their fingers in the soil. Both also have experience with organic production. Patrick works as a contract inspector for OEFFA and Julia is an OEFFA Certification Program Associate working on organic policy and with existing and transitional producers.
Nonetheless, transitioning a 100 acre conventional farm to organic production poses many challenges. Luckily, Patrick and Julia know enough to ask for help when they need it. They started working with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Environmental Quality Incentive Program Organic Initiative (EQIP-OI) to aid the transition to organic.
Currently, they have three different plans under EQIP-OI. One is a transition to organic cover cropping practices, one is for pollinator habitat that helps to meet the biodiversity goals for their Organic System Plan (OSP), and a third is for a seasonal high tunnel.
NRCS reimburses farmers for a portion of their costs. Patrick and Julia estimate the cover crop assistance covers about $8,000 in seed costs for one year.
The new high tunnel will be used for year-round in ground production. Several farmer mentors advised Patrick and Julia to spend a little extra to get the additional 14 feet of production space they received to make the tunnel 96 feet long. Once it’s built, EQIP reimburses a large portion of the high tunnel cost, about $9,800 of the total $11,000. Since Julia and Patrick are beginning farmers, they are eligible to receive 90 percent of the costs (as are socially disadvantaged, limited resource, and veteran participants). All other applicants are eligible for up to 75 percent of the costs associated with planning, design, materials, equipment, installation, labor, management, maintenance, or training.
Patrick and Julia emphasize it’s important to make sure you have the cash available up-front for NRCS infrastructure development, as the program runs on a reimbursement model. Beginning, socially disadvantaged, limited-resource, and veteran farmers and ranchers are also eligible for up to 50 percent advanced payment to cover their costs, but the other half of the payment still has to be made up front. One resource to help fill this gap is the crowdfunding site, Kiva, which provides no fee, no interest loans to farmers (which as a Kiva trustee, OEFFA can endorse)with a one year grace period for repayment. In Octagon Acres’ case, the high tunnel manufacturer, Tunnel Vision Hoops in Cleveland, allowed them to put half down because they understood that NRCS was supporting the project. In addition to these resources, EQIP participants can also cover the upfront costs through USDA’s Farm Service Agency’s microloan program, which provides streamlined credit options for beginning, socially disadvantaged, and veteran farmers. Farmers are then able to repay the microloan when they receive the additional cost-share funding through EQIP.
Although they know it’s the right thing to do for the land, Patrick and Julia could not have done the regeneration, soil building, and habitat biodiversity work without NRCS help. “Implementing an OSP without investing in the soil first would have been very difficult,” says Julia.
More information on the EQIP Organic Initiative is available here.