October 23, 2015
Last week we highlighted two Iowa farmers who enrolled in the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) Organic Initiative while they transitioned to organic production. The Organic Initiative, administered by NRCS, provides financial assistance to organic and transitioning producers to implement and install conservation practices tailored to organic producers.
Organic and transitioning producers can apply for funds through general EQIP or through the Organic Initiative. While the Organic Initiative allows producers to compete in a smaller pool of applicants than general EQIP, thus increasing the odds of being selected, participants are subject to a significantly lower payment limit. Hence, careful consideration must be given to how much funding is being sought in deciding whether to go through the Organic Initiative. EQIP can provide up to 75 percent of the costs for conservation practices, and for beginning or socially disadvantaged farmers the cost share can be as high as 90 percent.
This week’s Organic Initiative guest post, from Oregon Tilth, is also included within a publication of featured producers transitioning to organic. The profile provides another example of a farmer, this time from Oregon, who was able to use the Organic Initiative to support critical conservation practices, while also offsetting the lack of an organic premium in the market during transition years.
“The exposure to chemicals is tremendous here,” says Doug Lewis, owner of Agri-Star Farms. In the summertime, many neighboring farms are sprayed with pesticides weekly by planes, exposing farm workers and residents via wind drift. Doug was motivated to transition to organic production, committing himself to reduction of chemical use in this small rural community.
What started as a challenge, transitioning small plots of conventional land in 1999, will result in nearly 800 acres of certified organic Land by Oregon Tilth in 2015.
Initially, fields were fallow and relatively easy to transition. Over time, Doug increased expansion to organic farmland, adding areas previously dedicated to alfalfa production that had few weeds and better than expected soil fertility.
Doug believes that organic limits exposure to chemicals, a healthier option for rural communities and consumers. As an organic potato producer working side-by-side with conventional farmers, Doug sees firsthand why the Environmental Working Group includes potatoes on its ‘Dirty Dozen’ list – a guideline for avoiding fruits and vegetables with the highest levels of chemical pesticide residues.
Throughout the process, Doug faced several challenges common to transitional organic producers. For example, he continues to learn about weed control options in organic systems with limited options. In fact, when offering advice to producers considering transitioning land to organic, he says, “It is critical to understand weed science.”
For support during the transition, Doug contacted USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to inquire about the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) Organic Initiative. He has worked with NRCS for the past four years and received both financial and technical assistance along the way. NRCS staff were enthusiastic helpers, providing support on several issues including cover crops and fertility management. The financial assistance helps offset the lack of an organic premium in the market during transitional years.
Providing adequate fertility for his crops—organic barley, wheat, oats, potatoes and yellow mustard seed—was also a challenge when transitioning to organic. Chicken manure is readily available but expensive, and repeated applications can lead to excessive levels of phosphorus and potassium in the soil. With NRCS support, Doug is now exploring nutrient cycling with legumes such as alfalfa and using longer crop rotations to provide needed nitrogen without increasing other nutrients. Innovative rotation planning also provides benefits such as weed suppression and reduction of tillage.
NRCS works with producers on a range of practices integral to organic systems such as crop rotation, cover cropping, nutrient management, composting facilities, wildlife and pollinator habitats, mulching and grazing systems. In addition to technical assistance and based on eligibility, producers may receive funding to cover up to 90 percent of the cost of implementing each practice. Growers interested in learning more about opportunities to use EQIP as well as other financial and technical assistance, should contact their local NRCS field office. More information is available here and here.