“That’s a real plus to that, too,” said Cometto, “is quantifying it.” “We need some good data as well, so we can get around some bureaucratic roadblocks like crop insurance or things like that.”

Reduce risk

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the package of conservation innovation grants announced Thursday would ideally reduce risks to farmers and provide them with options to demonstrate they can benefit financially from some of these practices.

“It is difficult to ask farmers to do these (practices) because it requires upfront spending and investment,” he said. “It is also important for farmers to see the benefit of this investment before we essentially ask them to spend their own resources.”

However, not so long ago, practices such as stage intercropping were considered taboo by the federal crop insurance, which is administered by the USDA’s Risk Management Agency (RMA). When asked if crop insurance would be an issue with these trials, Vilsack said, “We took care of that.” He added that crop insurance had been adjusted when the ministry encouraged more double crops across the country last year. “The RMA has also modified risk management so that this is no longer a barrier.”

Two new nutrient management projects

During the event at the university, Vilsack also announced $19 million for two new nutrient management projects under the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) specifically to target nutrient management. One would go to a group, Family Farms LLC, that would promote the use of biochar in nutrient management plans to reduce nutrient runoff along parts of the Mississippi River basin “so that we don’t have the water quality challenges we faced in the past in the Mississippi basin.”

The second watershed project to be funded is Environmental Initiative Inc. , which will develop networks of farms and look to balance nutritional needs, dubbed ‘nutrient catchments’ in which manure will be collected from livestock farms and processed through centralized anaerobic digesters.

The program was created in 2014

The Regional Partnership for Conservation program was created in the Farm Bill of 2014 as a strategy to address environmental concerns in larger watershed projects. Recently, though, groups that have used the software have complained about the complexities and hundreds of man hours that go into those project applications.

Vilsack deflected some of that criticism, pointing to $19.5 billion in funding for conservation programs under the Inflation Reduction Act and the ability for individual producers to apply for programs as well as partnerships at various levels and scales, such as conservation innovation grants. For the RCPP projects, those are expected to be regional projects that require more work.

“We’re dealing with watersheds on a larger scale, so naturally you get larger groups and larger groups that have the ability to do more work in a larger area,” Vilsack said. “We have a range of options, which we didn’t have before. Now with the Climate Smart Partnership, which we didn’t have before, I think people can find a place to support and help if they want to.”

Expanding technical assistance

Besides funding projects, the USDA also announced two agreements to expand technical assistance for nutrient management as well. The Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) has signed Memorandums of Understanding with the American Agricultural Engineering Society (ASA) and its International Certified Crop Consultant (ICCA) to recommend people to participate in the NRCS Technical Service Provider Program. The program will certify people who will be able to assist producers and landowners with nutrient management plans, for example.

A second agreement has been reached with Land O’Lakes subsidiary Truterra, which will also develop nutrient management programs and increase technical capabilities for producers and landowners. Ideally, Truterra will help streamline technical assistance to producers as well as help farmers and landowners enroll in other NRCS programs.

The expansion of technical assistance to crop advisors and Land OLX comes after lawmakers questioned whether NRCS had staff capacity to expand technical assistance. At a congressional hearing last month, members of Congress asked Vilsack if more could be done for crop advisors to provide technical assistance for conservation.

For the full list of conservation innovation grant projects, go to https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/….

See also “USDA Releases $1 Billion to Catalyze Rural Renewable Energy Grants” here: https://www.dtnpf.com/….

Chris Clayton can be reached at [email protected]

Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClayton @DTN

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