In this 3-part series ( Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 ) we’ve been discussing how you can better understand the availability and function of EQIP grants provided by the Natural Resource Conservation Service.
Another reason I’m a huge fan of the NRCS is a larger issue not many people think about: Our country cannot sustainably feed itself with our current agricultural model. Today’s food system is predicated on cheap oil, cheap chemical inputs and massive subsidies whereby 2% of the population is feeding the other 98%. It does not take a degree in rocket science to figure out that at the end of that road is a civilization destined to implode. By promoting systems whereby we are taking the animals to the food, cutting petrol inputs, improving soils and decentralizing food production we may have a fighting chance of saving our country. Now that may come off as a doom and gloom perspective but demonstrate to me where I am wrong in my thinking. We have implemented with great efficiency just-in-time manufacturing principles into our food production and while it’s innovative, the risks are downright frightening. What happens if tomorrow morning we wake up and the subsidies are gone? Or diesel fuel is $10/gallon? Our vertically integrated food system would fall apart in a matter of weeks, leaving the citizens of this country in disarray. While I believe it is the personal responsibility of every citizen to produce as much of their own food as they can, obviously not everyone can raise all of their own protein needs. This is why I believe we need to work with programs like the NRCS for solutions that will actually strengthen our overall food supply, and hence our national security, with sustainable grazing systems. This will decentralize food production, invigorate new farmers to take up the mantel of “real food” production and point this thing in the right direction.
My personal belief is that the NRCS is one way we can begin to do that. Like myself, there are many out there who have the will, determination and drive to farm with sustainable methods but may lack some of the resources they need to be successful. In my case, we had property available to us and were able to fund our poultry and pork operations with our own seed money. But when it came time to really get rolling with beef, we were talking about big boy money! I held off using the grants for a long time out of pride but finally changed my mind after moving portable cattle fencing a quarter to half acre at a time every day for two years. And before you think about passing on a resource like this, go and rent a 20 acre field, fence it, route buried water to it and see how much you spend. For example, an 18 acre pasture we just completed this Spring took 15 months of work and required over $11,000 of investment before we ever put the first animal on it. Could we have gotten there on our own? Yes, in time with a lot of diligence. But in my mind, we need to jumpstart this decentralized sustainable food model now while we still have the opportunity to do so. If you have deep pockets to fund large projects, great! Not everyone does. Add to that the fact that we as small farmers are fighting an uphill battle against government bureaucrats and huge food corporations with an army of lobbyists, paid for politicians and lawyers at their disposal. This is a tough fight. Again, I’m not a proponent of government handouts but time is of the essence. In my mind we either accept a helping hand from a program that is all about farming the right way, or we accept that our personal health and whats left of our soils are goners. A country that can not feed itself is destined for failure! And in the end, we are talking about are our own tax dollars so we might as well put them to work doing something that is going to heal our country and not further destroy it. And this is money well spent, laying the way for multiple generations on a farm to raise healthy, nutrient dense food and make a good living while doing it. Personally I think this is the best investment our country can make in itself and is why I have changed my attitude about accepting grants from the NRCS.
Now that I’ve climbed down from my soapbox, you are probably wondering how these NRCS programs work. Well, the first thing you need is access to land. You can own it, or you can have a contract drawn up to lease or rent it. Either way, you have to have legal control of it in order for the NRCS to get involved if the grants are to be in your name. As an aside, in the case of renting or leasing I would personally want to know that I would have control of the property for a long period of time prior to putting the in the effort for something like building fence. Now, another solution might perhaps be that a family member, friend or adjacent farmers owns some property but is willing to sign off on the paperwork in order for you take advantage of the programs. The grants could all be done in their name, while you do the labor and project management and simply rent or lease the property on the backend. And maybe the “lease payment” is the sweat equity from you building the fence, planting the grasses, etc. However you can work it out, my advice is to do it and make this happen if you are serious about truly sustainable farming. And that advice goes regardless of scale, it could be 2 acres or 500 acres.
Next, call your local NRCS office (you can find your local office here) and tell them you would like to schedule a time for them to come out and view your property. You’ll want to mention that you are interested in the EQIP grants, and if you haven’t had any (or little) farm income on your tax return in the last 10 years, mention the Beginning Farmer grant as well. If you qualify as a “beginning farmer”, then you will get a slightly higher reimbursement rate on projects. Think of it as a bonus for being a newbie. If you have an existing farm with systems in place and have been going about things from a conventional manner, or if you are above taking a grant, you might just want some technical assistance and how-to advice. The NRCS is happy to provide that as well, and you would be wise to tap into the vast amount of knowledge available to you thru their staff.
Before your meeting, you’ll need to have in mind what it is you want to accomplish and some idea of the systems you are looking to put in or improvements you want to make. Are you wanting to graze cattle? Produce surplus hay? Install a freeze proof livestock watering area? In the case of a conventional farm, you would want to be open to how you can change your practices to increase yields, profit and quality of life thru sustainable practices. On our farm, we have built high tensile fence, installed buried water, planted grazing areas and have received grants for all of the above. So consider printing out an aerial view of your property and doing some basic sketching, showing where you are interested in installing fence, water, seeding or all of the above. You might even want to show this in phases over multiple years. How do you see the whole thing coming together? Maybe you have an existing grazing area that is overrun with fescue, you can get small grants to help inter-seed new stands of grasses and legumes into these areas. Tell them what you want to accomplish where, list the obstacles, and let them help you find the right solution.