NSAC's Blog

Sustainable Agriculture Groups Awarded USDA Conservation Innovation Grants

July 27, 2018

Ranchers implementing rotational grazing strategies. Photo credit: USDA.

The natural resource and environmental challenges of agriculture are constantly evolving. In order to keep pace, farmers and ranchers must continuously innovate and implement targeted solutions to the specific challenges of their region, climate, and farm type. The federal farm bill’s Conservation Innovation Grants (CIG) program is designed to help farmers and farmer-focused organizations to develop the groundbreaking methods and technologies that can help to keep family farmers sustainable and resilient.

This week, the US Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), which administers the grants, announced awards of over $10.6 million in CIG funds to 22 projects across the country. Half of the awards went to land grant universities and half to NGOs.

This round of CIG projects focused on developing innovative solutions for grazing lands, organic agriculture systems, and soil health. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) applauded NRCS for focusing this year’s awards of these three critical conservation issues.

CIG is a subprogram of the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). The grants support science-based solutions that benefit both farmers and the environment. Public and private organizations including state, local, and tribal governments, non-governmental organizations, and individuals are all eligible for the program. CIG projects are intended as a stepping stone leading to innovative conservation management systems, approaches, and technologies.

NSAC congratulates all awardees on their success in moving their projects through this highly competitive process. In particular, we are excited to highlight three of our member organizations that received CIG awards this year – Northeast Organic Farming Association-Massachusetts, Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, and Practical Farmers of Iowa. Two of these awards are in the soil health category and one in the organic agriculture category, though all three have a strong soil health focus.

Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) – Massachusetts – Organic Agriculture Systems

The Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) will work with farmers in three northeastern states to improve and further develop no-till organic practices. The organization’s priority is addressing the importance of soil health and tracking the tools and support that farmers need to maintain sustainable businesses. Project leaders will then share this information widely through workshops, conferences, field days, and media materials.

“We are quite excited to have been awarded this CIG grant where we will be working with nine farmers in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Jersey who are utilizing no-till organic practices,” said Julie Rawson, NOFA-Massachusetts Executive Director. “It is a three year grant to work with them as a learning community, run workshops and seminars and a keynote at the NOFA Summer Conference. We at NOFA feel that farmers can have a major impact on climate change through using carbon-sequestering practices on their farms. We are delighted that NRCS really embraces this work and is putting a lot of their governmental muscle behind this very important work.”

NOFA’s work on this project will be especially useful for farmers in the Northeast given the limited information and resources available to support no-till organic practices, and the fact that the dominant no-till strategies currently rely heavily on synthetic herbicides for weed control,  making them unusable by organic farmers.

Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) – Soil Health

Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) will use their CIG award to empower citizen-science farmers with the tools and support to assess their soil health, manage conservation goals, and track their progress. PASA will use community oriented monitoring and open source farm management in their project, incorporating outcome-based marketing in their education for consumers. The farmers they are working with will do soil sampling and on-farm data collection and then share management records with other farmers in order to build a deeper understanding on how each farm’s soil health systems compare, ultimately learning and growing through the collaboration.

“We are thrilled to have received this support for our research programs, involving over 100 farmers who manage an estimated 20,750 acres of farmland in Pennsylvania and neighboring states,” said Hannah Smith-Brubaker, PASA Executive Director. “This sort of collaboration adds to the strength of the sustainable agriculture network within the region, better positioning farmers to weather climate and market variability.”

PASA’s project will utilize three innovative strategies for generating improvements in soil health on working farms: 1) a citizen-science approach to monitor community progress and draw insights from the practices of soil health leaders, 2) open-source farm management software to facilitate data collection on working farms, and 3) outcome-based marketing that educates consumers on the importance of soil health and adds value to the businesses of farmers practicing excellent soil stewardship.

Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI) – Soil Health

Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI) will work to increase demand for small grains as animal feed and cover crop seed in order to create a secondary market for farmers looking to increase their small grain acres. This projects aims to create more sustainable food chains for food companies, while also serving the needs of sustainable farmers for profitable, more diverse rotations. Food companies and farmers will collaborate in the effort to improve water quality and soil health and limit greenhouse gas emissions.

“We are excited to continue working on developing production and markets for small grains in the Midwest,” explained Alisha Bower, PFI Strategic Initiatives Manager. “Our current CIG (2016-2019), which offered cost share to farmers in Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin, was so popular we obligated nearly 3,000 acres in 2018 alone and had more interest than we had capacity to cover. This new award will allow us to continue offering cost share and agronomic support to farmers in these states and expand across the Corn Belt into Illinois, Indiana and Ohio. We’re also looking forward to collaborating with food and beverage companies to explore including more small grains in livestock feed and driving demand for cover crop seed to provide secondary markets for farmers who take the plunge and try out these crops.”

PFI’s goal is to get the conditions right to really make small grains work in a farm business, setting the stage for them to take off across the region and provide the conservation and environmental benefits of more extended, diverse crop rotations at scale.

Kudos also to First Nations Development Institute for their award in the Grazing Lands category to build the capacity of Native farmers to plan, implement and evaluate innovative grazing systems. You can view the full list of the FY 2018 CIG awards here.

Categories: Conservation, Energy & Environment, Grants and Programs

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