Conservation program rewards growers for current practices

Published online: Dec 19, 2013
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LAVA HOT SPRINGS, Idaho-Kevin Koester hasn't had to change much on his farm to make a significant income from the Natural Resource Conservation Service's Conservation Stewardship Program.

The Lava Hot Springs farmer believes the beauty of the program is that it recognizes what growers are already doing to address natural resource concerns in areas such as erosion control and water and air quality. The deadline to obtain Fiscal Year 2014 funding for Conservation Stewardship-which eclipsed the roughly 35 million U.S. acres enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve Program last season for most acres in a conservation program-is Jan. 17.

Conservation Stewardship growers must implement at least one new enhancement in the first year of their five-year contracts, and retain the enhancement throughout the duration.

As a new practice under the program, Koester now recycles used lubricants, turning them in at a local Grease Monkey. He'd previously given them to a friend with an oil-burning furnace.

Before he relinquished some leased farm land, Koester met the maximum $40,000 payment cap for an individual producer enrolled in Conservation Stewardship.

"That's one of the nice things . is that you're rewarded for conservation practices you've already established," said Koester, a no-till farmer.

Growers are paid 5 cents per acre for each new enhancement on crop land, or 4 cents per acre for eligible existing practices. For range land, payments are 1 cent for existing practices and 1.5 cents for new enhancements.

"As a producer, it's a pretty good program, and a lot of people haven't taken advantage of it because the hardest thing you ever do in life is change ... or as a couple of producers have told me, `I don't want the government to tell me how to farm,'" Koester said.

Rob Fredericksen, who manages the program in Idaho, said funding is awarded through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, but competition for funding is on a statewide basis rather than by region as with EQIP.

Conservation Stewardship participants are asked a series of questions about rotations, crop land type, pest management, tillage and other practices to generate a score based on existing activities, and to identify resource concerns to address through new enhancements. On range land, a common enhancement is to move salt licks periodically to avoid overgrazing in specific areas, Fredericksen said. Planting cover crops has become popular on crop land, as has planting deep-rooted crops, such as alfalfa, to break up soil compaction.

"The better job I've done for all of these years, I'm going to get some money for doing that, and it gives an opportunity to try something new," Fredericksen said.

Since the program started in 2009, 600,000 acres have been enrolled in Idaho. The first contracts, covering 350,000 acres, are scheduled to end in December, and Fredericksen expects to receive rules soon on how those producers may extend their expiring contracts. He hopes to know how many acres Idaho will have available for FY 2014 before the January deadline.

Source: www.capitalpress.com