NSAC's Blog

New On-Farm Conservation Innovation Trials Program Awards Over $24 Million

December 13, 2019

Jason Degenhardt, right, and NRCS soil health specialist Aaron Hird examine a soil sample for structure and for earthworms. Photo credit: NRCS.
Jason Degenhardt, right, and NRCS soil health specialist Aaron Hird examine a soil sample for structure and for earthworms. Photo credit: NRCS.

Conservation innovators recently received a major infusion of support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), which last month announced over $24 million in awards for On-Farm Conservation Innovation Trials (On-Farm Trials). Sixteen projects received awards this cycle ranging from $280,000 to $3,000,000. These projects will advance innovative conservation practices across 22 states, providing support to producers testing new and creative practices.

The On-Farm Trials subprogram is a new component of the Conservation Innovation Grants (CIG) program, which is authorized by the 2018 Farm Bill. The majority of awarded projects (63 percent) in the subprogram’s first year are concentrated in NRCS’ “Central region”, although every region was awarded at least one project. Nine of the projects are part of CIG’s Soil Health Demo Trial (SHD), and the remaining seven address priorities outlined by NRCS earlier this year (precision agriculture, irrigation management, and management technologies). SHD projects received 56 percent of total funding and will benefit 16 individual states, located primarily in the Central region of the country.

In this blog post, we provide an overview of this new CIG subprogram, and highlight notable awardees from the first round of On-Farm Trials funding.

On-Farm Trials Overview

On-Farm Trials is a new subprogram of the larger CIG program, and CIG in turn is a subprogram of the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), a voluntary conservation program that offers farmers and ranchers assistance to implement conservation practices. Through the CIG subprogram, NRCS offers competitive grants to fund multi-stakeholder partnerships that address a variety of natural resource concerns on agricultural lands. These on-the-ground projects help develop and transfer technology to farmers and ranchers addressing critical natural resource concerns. Projects can include on-farm pilot projects and field demonstrations.

First authorized in the 2018 Farm Bill, the On-Farm Trials subprogram supports the adoption of innovative approaches, practices, and systems on working lands. NRCS is authorized to provide $25 million per year for On-Farm Trials, with awards ranging from $250,000 to $5 million. As part of these projects, NRCS works with partners to implement and evaluate on-the-ground conservation activities. On-Farm Trials awardees use their grant funding to provide technical assistance and incentive payments to help producers offset the risk of trying novel conservation approaches on their land.

Soil Health Demo Trial (SHD)

As part of authorizing On-Farm Trials, the 2018 Farm Bill also authorized the SHD component, which focuses exclusively on conservation practices and systems that enhance soil health and increase soil carbon. Participants in SHD must use consistent soil health and soil carbon assessment protocols developed by NRCS for project evaluations.

Projects are evaluated in terms of soil health benefits, as well as by the economic outcomes generated as a result of adopting conservation practices. Through this option, farmers are supported in their efforts to build soil health, and outcomes of their trials are measured, evaluated, and reported to improve our understanding of soil health benefits. SHD projects must address one or more of NRCS’s national priorities, which include transitioning and adopting full soil health management systems, cover crop management, and increasing diversity in production systems.

Awardee Highlights

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) congratulates all of this year’s awardees on their success in a highly competitive first round. Details on a few of the many notable awarded projects follow below:

  • Colorado Conservation Tillage Association (CCTA): In partnership with the College of Agricultural Sciences at Colorado State University, the Western Kansas Agricultural Research-Extension Centers, and Health First, CCTA will use their $1,672,546 grant to help farmers and ranchers advance regenerative production practices in the High Plains. The project will take place over the next three years in Colorado, Kansas, and Nebraska. CCTA and their project partners will provide incentive payments for farmers and ranchers to create and implement Comprehensive Soil Health Management Plans. They will also develop a farmer-to-farmer mentoring program and an evaluation of soil health, nutrient density, economic factors, and social outcomes on participating farms.
  • North Jersey Resource Conservation & Development (NJRCD): NJRCD will use their $933,970 grant to conduct a soil health demonstration that compares current cover crop termination practices in the Northeast. Their analysis will compare the use of herbicide against three innovative methods of delaying cover crop termination and cash crop planting on 25 farms spanning 4,000 acres in northern New Jersey. NJRCD and their partners will use a combination of soil samples, field assessments, farm data, and farmer interviews to compare the environmental, economic, and social impacts of the various treatments. Through this project, NJRCD hopes to help farmers realize the full benefits of cover crops and stimulate adoption of soil health systems.
  • National Corn Growers Association: This $2,409,500 award will support the National Corn Growers Association’s Soil Health Partnership (SHP) program, as well as a collaboration with the Illinois Corn Growers Association to help farmers in Illinois conduct side by side comparisons of different tillage, cover crop, and nutrient management practices. The project will also support on-farm trials and comparisons of grazing and manure use opportunities. Grant funding will be used to offset seed costs, encourage farmer engagement, and minimize yield disruptions. The project aims to help farmers understand and implement new soil health practices and connect those practices to farm profitability.
  • Soil and Water Conservation Society: In collaboration with agriculture retailer co-ops, this $1,453,232 project will support trials of comprehensive zone nutrient management and precision cover crop strategies with approximately 50 farmer partners. The project will include economic and social evaluations of the on-farm activities with the goal of advancing precision nutrient and soil health management practices among retailer cooperatives.
  • Water Resources Monitoring Group: will partner with local agricultural organizations in the Great Lakes states, including Illinois, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin, and use their $1,967,200 grant to carry out Trials of innovative cover crop approaches with ~120 agricultural producers will be supported by this $1,967,200 grant project. In partnership with local agricultural organizations in Illinois, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin, the project will measure the conservation, economic, and social outcomes of the field trials using a replicated strip, field and paired-basin scale approach. As part of the SHD, this project will be evaluating the impacts of cover crops on soil health in the Great Lakes region.
  • Clemson University:  The University will use their $497,189 grant to implement its Clemson Water Management System in partnership with 18 South Carolina Farmers. The water management system combines sensor-based and site-specific water application technologies with an Internet-of-Things approach to make precise water application information available on handheld devices in real time. This project will carry out on-farm demonstrations and evaluations of cloud-based soil moisture monitoring technologies. Researchers hope to demonstrate that the system can enhance water use efficiency and farm profits, while reducing energy use and nutrient leaching into groundwater.

The full list of On-Farm Trials awards for fiscal year 2019 is available here.

Categories: Conservation, Energy & Environment, Grants and Programs, Research, Education & Extension

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