Farmers who transition to organic production gain environmental as well as economic benefits when they make the switch to organic. However, these producers take on significant costs during the transition when the organic price premium is not yet reflected in their sales. Transitioning producers also face a unique set of conservation challenges. This guest post from Steve Carlson, Beginning Farmer and Program Associate, at Practical Farmers of Iowa highlights the opportunity for transitioning producers to receive support through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) Organic Initiative.
Identifying Local NRCS Partners
When Sara Hanson moved back to her family’s farm in Wesley, Iowa, she had the experience, land, and vision to start her own organic farm business. However, converting a conventional row crop farm into a certified organic vegetable farm is neither easy nor cheap.
A trip to Sara’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) office helped get the process started, as she met with a field agent to discuss her needs and brainstorm next steps. With the help of NRCS, Sara evaluated her options, developed a conservation plan, and completed an application for Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) Organic Initiative.
EQIP Organic Initiative
The EQIP Organic Initiative, administered by NRCS, provides financial assistance to organic producers to address resource concerns by implementing and installing conservation practices tailored to organic producers. It is available in all states and counties through local field offices, and helps to fund conservation plans, buffer zones, pollinator habitat, irrigation efficiency, nutrient management, cover crops, and other conservation practices tailored to organic producers.
The Organic Initiative is one of four national EQIP initiatives. 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. Contracts generally last from one to three years, but depending on the practice can be as long as 10 years.
Conservation Planning for Organic Transition
Through the Organic Initiative, Sara developed a conservation plan for her farm. The conservation plan included that Sara would transition three conventional field crop acres to organic by planting alfalfa with a 30-foot prairie buffer on three sides. After her organic transition plan was in place, Sara was able to receive cost-share assistance through the Organic Initiative for expenses such as the cost of alfalfa seed and a grain drill rental.
Iowa farmer Wendy Johnson also received funding through the Organic Initiative, but encountered challenges around the timing of her conservation plan. Wendy operates a diversified farm that includes corn, soybeans, hay, sheep, hogs and chickens. She transitioned 27 acres into organic row crop production, and worked with technical service provider (TSP) Joe Lally to produce the required Conservation Activity Plan (CAP) supporting organic transition.
Lally is the only technical service provider in Iowa who works on organic transition plans, which is reflective of the critical need for increased training to expand the number of TSPs who can complete organic transition plans.
EQIP funding covered the cost of completing the conservation plan, but Wendy fears she may have missed out on more funding because of recent changes to the application timing and miscommunication with NRCS staff.
“I recommend that farmers start the process early,” Wendy says, “and be in really good communication with your NRCS district conservationist.”
How to Apply
For producers looking to EQIP as they transition land to organic production, close communication and collaboration with local NRCS offices is a critical piece of the puzzle.
“The main thing,” says Paul Miller, a district conservationist in Polk County, Iowa, “is just to get the field agent out to the farm to discuss the best options for that particular land, and to get a plan drawn up.”
Applications for EQIP funding are accepted anytime, though there are periodic batching dates when the applications on file are ranked and selected. To apply for EQIP funding, stop by your county NRCS office, or call to have NRCS staff visit your farm and evaluate your conservation options. NRCS staff will determine your eligibility, walk you through the application process and help develop an EQIP plan of operations.