I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” ~ Ronald Reagan
Normally when I think about the above quote, I’m as reluctant as the next guy to believe anyone from the federal government can be of much help with anything. That being said, and as odd as it may sound, there is one division of government I have found to be very helpful when it comes to farming the right way. In a recent podcast interview, I mentioned a grant we received and used on our farm called the EQIP program thru the NRCS which is a division of the USDA. I have received some emails asking about this program and it’s obvious that since we didn’t cover many of the details about it in the interview, there is some confusion about what this is and more precisely what it is not. While I’m not a proponent of government handouts, I’m a huge cheerleader of the NRCS for a number of reasons I’ll discuss in this article.
A little background: The NRCS (natural resource conservation service) is what I would call the mentally balanced division of the USDA. If you are looking for a sustainable, quasi organic bent on how to do farming within the USDA, the NRCS is it. They have a vast number of financial and technical resources, and in my experience the knowledge base of the folks working there has been pretty outstanding. We are fortunate enough to have a gentleman here in Indiana who is a top notch grazer on his own farm, and his day job with NRCS pays him to help dispense his knowledge and experience to the rest of us. In meeting other NRCS speakers at various conferences, I have found that same depth of knowledge to be the norm.
Simply put the main goal of the NRCS is to help farmers conserve our natural resources and heal the land, creating healthy ecosystems. In the case of grazing, there is funding available to take lifeless, destroyed row crop fields and convert them into living polyculture grazing systems. They want farmers and homesteaders alike to take the cattle, sheep and goats to the food and not take the food to the animals – what a concept. They promote mob grazing, rotational grazing, soil building and low energy input systems. There are grants (more on that later in this article) available to install fencing systems, buried water systems and to seed things like grasses and legumes for the sole purpose of grazing. There are even some smaller grants available for simply practicing rotational grazing within existing systems. Who among us can apply for these grants? Anyone with access to land. And you don’t have to be a full time farmer to tap into these grants, I know of homesteaders in my county who own as little as five acres and received a grant to fence it off so they could raise their own beef.
Yet another function for the NRCS is all about helping row crop farmers improve yields while decreasing or eliminating the use of chemical based pesticides, insecticides and herbicides. They also teach how to improve soils by the use of green manures, no till cropping and even promote “chop and drop” to create a think layer of mulch to plant into. If you really want to get schooled by the NRCS on healthy soils, watch this YouTube presentation by NRCS agronomist Ray Archuleta. I’ve never seen anyone get as fired up as Ray about dirt!
The greatest practical example I have seen of this particular model is from a man I met at an NRCS conference named Gabe Brown who farms with his son Paul in North Dakota. They have a large row cropping business as well as a grass-fed beef enterprise and are even doing pastured poultry. Gabe row crops thousands of acres and has not tilled since 1993 and uses zero chemicals on his farm. You can watch a pretty neat video on YouTube of Gabe talking about his farm and how they transformed it starting over 20 years ago.
You can also read more about his operation on his website. Gabe and his family are a model of success for anyone to look towards on how to farm in conjunction with what the NRCS teaches and promotes, especially when it comes to large scale commercial row cropping. If all row cropping were done they way Gabe does it, our soils would be a model for the whole world to admire.
- Understanding NRCS EQIP Grants – Part 1
- Understanding NRCS EQIP Grants – Part 2
- Understand NRCS EQIP Grants – Part 3