NSAC's Blog

Stories From the Field: Conservation Programs for New Farming Futures

May 5, 2017

Ryan Speer and family on their farm.

Raised in western Kansas, Ryan Speer grew up knowing that he wanted to farm. What he didn’t know, however, was how to farm in a way that was both economically and environmentally sustainable. Having come of age during some difficult economic times in farm country, Ryan took the opportunity to study and practice agronomy. Though he enjoyed his work, he couldn’t shake the desire to get back to the land and farm. Ryan decided that he wanted to farm in a way that would regenerate rather than deplete natural resources.

In 2002 Ryan started working on his family’s third-generation farm, Jacobs Farm, as a farm manager. By 2008 he was ready to take his passion for sustainability to the next level through US Department of Agriculture (USDA) conservation programs, including the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). Thanks to these programs, Ryan was not only able to find this “better way” to farm, but he also inspired others with his success and dedication. 

Conservation programs in action

Both CSP and EQIP help farmers improve the quality of their soil and conserve water while enhancing their economic livelihoods. Through EQIP, farmers receive financial cost-share assistance and technical assistance to implement conservation practices such as season-extending high tunnels and solar-powered electric fencing.

Many farmers who begin with EQIP find that “graduating” to CSP is a natural next step that can help them to continue and expand their conservation efforts. Farmers enroll in CSP through five-year contracts and use the program to holistically assess and address their operation’s conservation needs. Conservation systems and enhancements through CSP are wide-ranging in their goals, and can include efforts to increase biodiversity and wildlife habitat, address water quality and water conservation issues, and improve soil health, among other issues. By participating in working lands conservation programs like CSP and EQIP, farmers are able to ensure the health of their land for generations to come without jeopardizing their bottom line.

Making waves in rural Kansas

Ryan and his team start every day at 6:30AM with a short meeting to plan the day’s work. Cattle care is always first, and then the rest of the list is based on whatever chores on their 4,000 acre diversified crop and livestock operation need the most attention. With a rotation of no-till corn, soybeans, wheat, sorghum, sunflowers, and cover crops – in addition to direct-to-consumer beef cattle – there is always some new challenge to tackle.

“We start with Plan A and sometimes when we get to noon we’re on Plan E,” Ryan jokes.

In 2008, Ryan was awarded his first EQIP contract, which he used to convert his flood irrigation system to irrigation pivots. The sophisticated low-drip nozzles have reduced water usage on the farm and made their irrigation system more efficient – especially important during the dry Kansas summers. The benefits of this water-conserving system are felt by farmers throughout the region.

“Farmers who use EQIP have reduced their groundwater usage – something they may have wanted to do, but EQIP allowed them to make that change faster. These programs are really good at spurring a farmer to uptake these practices on a larger scale,” says Ryan.

Ryan wasn’t content to stop with just the irrigation project, however. EQIP had opened the door for enhanced conservation activities, and Ryan wanted to keep improving by enrolling in the whole-farm conservation program offered by CSP. CSP helps farmers to implement advanced conservation techniques across their operation and offers payments for actively managing, maintaining, and expanding those activities.

Through CSP, Ryan has been able to introduce biomass cover crops like radishes, turnips, and canola, which he blends with his rye, oats, and barley to cover 100% of his acres.

According to Ryan, “The agronomic benefits of stopping soil erosion and increasing water and nutrient retention through cover crop use can’t be overstated.”

CSP also supports the farm’s improved sprayer technology to reduce chemical inputs and a nitrogen management system that allows Ryan and his crew to measure nitrogen levels in the soil in order to maximize their crop yield. In recognition of his significant conservation efforts, Ryan was awarded the 2012 Midwest Region Conservation Legacy Award.

Spreading the word

EQIP and CSP are making environmentally sound practices economically feasible for farmers in Kansas and across the country. To Ryan, partaking in these programs is a no-brainer.

“I don’t know why anyone wouldn’t utilize these programs after seeing the results,” said Ryan.

Long healthy root systems on Jacobs Farm.

Jacobs Farm is more efficient and saving money, and their neighbors in rural Kansas have noticed. At first, Ryan said, people were skeptical. Neighboring farmers thought his conservation initiatives seemed strange, that is until they came to the farm for a field day. During field days Ryan hosts 50-150 people at a time, and he and his crew use the opportunity to show their community the mutual benefits of conservation programs like CSP and EQIP. Today, Jacobs Farm is a model for how these working lands conservation programs can thrive in rural Kansas.

NSAC fights to preserve conservation programs

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) is committed to the protection of conservation programs like CSP and EQIP because of the benefits they offer for the environment, farmers and rural communities. After seven months of delay, Congress recently passed its fiscal year 2017 funding package, which made no cuts to CSP but did cut EQIP. As discussions around the FY 2018 funding cycle begin in earnest, there will no doubt be attempts to once again cut these vital programs. With demand already outstripping available funding for these programs, any cuts would be devastating for farmers and ranchers nationwide.

NSAC will also be fighting for strong and adequately funded conservation programs in the 2018 Farm Bill, as we do every farm bill cycle. For a preview of NSAC’s 2018 Farm Bill priorities check out our blog, and stay tuned to our website for future updates and opportunities to engage.

Categories: Budget and Appropriations, Conservation, Energy & Environment, Farm Bill

One response to “Stories From the Field: Conservation Programs for New Farming Futures”

  1. Dede says:

    We are standing with you!
    As the new head of the USDA, Sonny Perdue is seemingly more attentive in his Big Ag Industry interests, we have power in our other government bodies to work toward a higher calling and that is giving the families who desire to farm their land, the best possible sustainable farming knowledge, and applications available!