NSAC's Blog


May 14, 2021

Nice Farms Creamery in Federalsburg, Maryland. Photo credit: USDA Photo by Preston Keres.

On April 21, 2021, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) announced the availability of $25 million in funding to advance the adoption and evaluation of innovative conservation practices on agricultural lands. The funding is for on-farm trials, a sub-program of the Conservation Innovation Grants (CIG) program. CIGs are designed to support collaboration between NRCS and partners to implement on-the-ground conservation activities and evaluate their impacts. Participating farmers and ranchers receive payments to offset the risk and investments for testing out new conservation approaches.

The deadline to apply for On-Farm Conservation Innovation Trials is June 21, 2021.

CIG Basics

Authorized under the 2018 Farm Bill, the CIG program supports science-based solutions that benefit both farmers and the environment. As a subprogram of the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), CIG projects are intended as a stepping-stone for farmers to implement more innovative conservation management systems, approaches, and technologies on their land.

Through the CIG program, NRCS offers competitive grants to fund multi-stakeholder partnerships that address a variety of natural resource concerns on agricultural land. These on-the-ground projects are funded to help transfer technology to farmers and ranchers in order to address critical natural resource concerns and include on-farm pilot projects and field demonstrations.

NRCS typically provides guidance regarding the particular resource concerns or areas of innovation to be addressed in that year’s funding pool, as NRCS seeks to prioritize emerging, high priority concerns each year.

On-Farm Trials

The 2018 Farm Bill established On-Farm Conservation Innovation Trials to provide funding directly to partners, who can then offer technical assistance and payments to producers interested in implementing innovative conservation practices on their land. On-Farm Trials support the implementation of innovative approaches that have a positive conservation effect, but have not yet been widely adopted by producers. NRCS is authorized to provide $25 million per year for on-farm trials with awards ranging from $250,000 to $5 million.

This CIG funding announcement is specifically for the $25 million available for On-Farm Conservation Innovation Trials. NRCS will announce funding for additional opportunities through the CIG program later this year. On-Farm Trial grants are available for non-governmental organizations with experience working with farmers and ranchers, private entities whose primary business is related to agriculture, and non-federal government agencies. On-Farm Trials projects may be between three and five years in duration.

Priorities: 2021 On-Farm Trials

Each year, NRCS identifies priority topics for On-Farm Trials. For 2021, applicants must address one of the four following priorities:

  • Climate-smart agricultural solutions: projects that focus on approaches to reducing emissions of greenhouse gases or enhancing soil carbon and perennial biomass sequestration. All selected applications must use quantification methodologies that align with the USDA report titled Quantifying Greenhouse Gas Fluxes in Agriculture and Forestry: Methods for Entity-Scale Inventory
  • Soil health demonstration trial: projects that are demonstrations of long-term, successful Soil Health Management Systems and/or production systems transitioning to a Soil Health Management System. Applications must indicate which of the four soil health management principles their project addresses, as well as identify at least one of the national Soil Health Demonstration subpriorities (see more details below).
  • Irrigation water management: projects that enhance a producer’s ability to monitor irrigation needs effectively, manage irrigation practices efficiently, and increase water savings. 
  • Management technologies and strategies: projects that help producers effectively manage production systems while achieving conservation benefits through more efficient application and management. This category includes many ideas derived from both the On-Farm Trials statute and other NRCS ideas. See the funding announcement for examples.

More details on these priorities is available in the full announcement available through grants.gov.

Soil Health Demonstration Trial

As part of authorizing On-Farm Trials, the 2018 Farm Bill also created the Soil Health Demonstration Trial (SHD) component, which focuses exclusively on conservation practices and systems that enhance soil health and increase soil carbon. NRCS anticipates that up to $10 million of On-Farm Trials funding in 2021 will be awarded to entities applying for the SHD component.

Participants in the SHD component must use consistent soil health and soil carbon assessment protocols developed by NRCS. Projects are evaluated in terms of soil health, as well as by the economic outcomes generated as a result of the conservation practices. This option supports farmers in their efforts to build soil health, while simultaneously measuring, evaluating, and reporting on the outcomes associated with these projects.

SHD are on-farm demonstrations of long-term, successful Soil Health Management Systems (SHMS), and/or production systems transitioning to a SHMS. A SHMS is a collection of management practices that focuses on increasing soil carbon and improving soil health through the four soil health management principles: minimize disturbance, maximize soil cover, maximize biodiversity, and maximize the presence of living roots.

National subpriorities for 2021 within the SHD component include:

  • A transition to and adoption of full SHMS, adapted to regional production systems, meeting all soil health management principles.
  • Cover crop management in water-limited systems (e.g. timing of termination) or in humid regions (e.g. slug control).
  • Integrating greater diversity in production systems, such as management for soil health in grazing land or integrated crop-livestock systems.
  • Designing SHMS with nutrient management adjustment for improved water quality, particularly to address concerns with dissolved reactive phosphorus.
  • Designing SHSM for challenging cropping systems, such as high disturbance (e.g. potatoes and sugar beets), intensive vegetable, organic, or herbicide-resistant.
  • Development of soil health management systems that include the addition of carbon amendments such as compost or biochar, with evaluation of the effect on soil carbon and soil function. 
  • Addressing any of the above within the context of climate smart agriculture, climate change mitigation and adaptation, carbon sequestration, and production system resilience with special attention towards collecting data to define and quantify related outcomes. 

Trials that compare SHMS to nearby or similar production systems that do not meet SHMS principles (e.g. high disturbance, low diversity, low cover) are highly desired for this round of funding. Applicants must develop production and climate specific SHMS templates that are regionally relevant for projects that successfully implement SHMS.

How to Apply

NRCS is accepting proposals for On-Farm Conservation Innovation Trials through June 21, 2021. Applicants can find the full description of this funding opportunity and apply online through grants.gov. Finally, NRCS held a webinar for On-Farm Trials on May 13, 2021 at 3 p.m. Eastern Time to provide more information to potential applicants. The recording of the webinar is available online, in addition to other helpful resources for applicants.

Categories: Conservation, Energy & Environment, Farm Bill, Grants and Programs, Local & Regional Food Systems


  1. Ann Chaney says:

    Thank you for the information. Our farm will likely apply to strengthen our sustainable irrigation measures, especially in drought conditions.