How it works: Funding for farmers

JANELLE PATTERSON The Marietta Times Lyndsay Biehl, left, and Bill Stacy swap growing tips in the Wildroot Flower Co. high tunnel in Reno Wednesday.

Investing in farm and land infrastructure can be pricey, whether it’s putting in place and following a forest management plan at a cost of $2,500 to $12,000 or constructing a high tunnel to extend the growing season, which runs from $750 to $1,000.

But two Reno farmers highlighted this week how they have used available federal programs through the U.S. Department of Agriculture to expand.

“It’s truly a business decision,” noted Bill Stacy, owner of Stacy’s Family Farm which is not only known for its strawberries in the summer but also produces tomatoes and other vegetables through the fall.

Stacy has tomatoes growing in his high tunnel built with the federal dollars and is in the process of installing a pollinator plot as his end of the bargain in receiving USDA Environmental Quality Incentives Program funds for the investment.

The funding for EQIP comes from the congressional Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, colloquially called the Farm Bill, and is a voluntary incentive which allows the USDA local district offices to provide both technical advice to farmers and landowners, and at the same time offer financial support to mitigate the cost of implementing new conservation practices.

It covers land management and erosion prevention programs, soil health, pollinator and wildlife habitat implementation and even pest management, prescribed burning planning and feed management –all with competitive grant funding.

USDA District Conservationist David Bauerbach calls the program one of Washington County’s best-kept secrets, especially since many of the programs see few applications from the area.

“Wildlife management has been underused for the abundance of funds available,” he said. “But meanwhile with the last farm bill nationally the funding has doubled going into wildlife management.”

Management plans take on a guided analysis of a private property and what the landowner/farmer intends to do.

Then a written plan is constructed with the conservationist, forester or other expert and the farmer goes through the eligibility process to apply for grant funding to implement described changes.

Ohio program priorities include and are managed by:

• Air quality: access control, farmstead energy improvement, pumping plants and roof and covers.

• Degraded plant condition: brush management, fence, prescribed grazing, forage and biomass.

• Excess water: irrigation pipeline, micro-irrigation, irrigation water management and subsurface drains.

• Inadequate habitat for fish and wildlife: tree/shrub establishment, upland wildlife habitat management, vegetative barriers and windbreak shelterbelt renovation.

• Inefficient energy use: building envelope improvement, farmstead energy improvement, grassed waterway and underground outlets.

• Insufficient water: pond, residue management, no-till, seasonal high tunnel system for crops and structures for water control.

• Livestock production limitation: feed management, forage harvest management, water well and watering facility.

• Soil erosion: conservation cover, conservation crop rotation, cover crop and forest stand improvement.

• Soil quality degradation: access road, animal mortality facility, heavy use area protection and mulching.

• Water quality degradation: constructed wetland, riparian forest buffer, riparian herbaceous buffer and windbreak shelterbelt.

But Stacy isn’t the only one to use EQIP funds in Washington County.

On Wednesday while working in his fields, he was quick to laud the recent work of friend and fellow green thumb Lyndsay Biehl, owner of Wildroot Flower Co., an urban farm off of Browns Road in Reno which also utilized the grant funding to build a high tunnel.

“She’s putting in the work and building her business while working off her farm full-time,” he said, beaming.

The two swap advice from his years as a produce grower and learn from her agriscience education background that she utilizes with her crops.

“It kills me a little when people say they love my garden,” Biehl joked as the pair strolled through her high tunnel, surrounded by flowers. “This is so much more than a garden. It takes a year of planning in advance to put in the orders, then all the pre-planting work starting in September, then making it through winter all before you even see the buds and weed.”

High tunnels are metal structures wrapped in thick plastic which allow for crop protection from wildlife and foster a more controlled in-ground growing area. Both Stacy and Biehl made use of grant structures from the USDA and took on the stipulations of land/wildlife management coinciding with the funds.

“I’m putting in a pollinator plot along a part of my property,” noted the strawberry farmer.

“I’m required to use cover crop here when I’m not growing flowers to keep the soil healthy,” added Biehl.

The investment is one which Bauerbach hopes more local farmers utilize.

“I think many farmers have misconceptions about what these programs are used for because many years ago we put in a bunch of ponds,” Bauerbach theorized. “And now some will say ‘well, I don’t want people to come trespass on my property and fish’ but ponds aren’t all we do, and we’re non-regulatory, so you still retain the private land after we’ve helped you.”

Bauerbach works under the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, an agency of the USDA set up to help private landowners better manage the use of their properties, the crops/forestry growing there and the wildlife cohabitating in those spaces.

“These programs started after the Dust Bowl,” explained Biehl. “For example, cover crops, those were introduced to help retain the soil and prevent erosion, and that’s part of the grant I received to build this high tunnel.”

Biehl is now in the process of applying for a second grant through Bauerbach’s office to build a second structure where she can grow flowers.

“I like to remind people that we do run at the speed of government and because of the nature of our funding cycle, our programs are built more for the long-term ideas,” explained Bauerbach. “It can take about a year to establish the correct paperwork and acquire funding.”

Then after funding is acquired, as in Biehl and Stacy’s cases, there’s a timeframe given to landowners to build/implement the funded program.

“Once I got the funding I had to have my high tunnel built within two years,” explained Biehl. “I ended up using Amish contractors to build it back in September, so I could have plants in the ground by December. And we’re still working on getting the electrical in here for the fans and ventilation above, and next, I’ll put in drop irrigation, too.”

At a glance:

• The USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service offers an environmental quality incentives program to entice private property owners to implement conservation activities on their land.

• The program is the opposite of an unfunded mandate–it’s a voluntary program with financial incentives to preserve and heal both forested and farmed properties.

• The local USDA NRCS office works in partnership with the Washington Soil and Water Conservation District office on conservation and land management practices with private property owners.

• For more information contact District Conservationist David Bauerbach at david.bauerbach@usda.gov and Soil and Water at 740-373-4857, ext. 3.

Source: District Conservationist David Bauerbach.

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