Where's the Money for Sustainable Ag?

Two farmers talk on the field, then shake hands.

Where's the Money for Sustainable Ag?

There’s a whole world of funding that can help to bring conservation practices onto your farm. Those cost shares can be a big help for producers who want to take a stab at something new like cover crops, reduced tillage, or saturated buffers. But wading through the web of federal, state, and private programs can feel like a full-time job of its own. That’s why Mitchell Hora and Zach Johnson, the hosts of the Field Work podcast, set out to explore the question: where is the money for sustainable agriculture?

As you might expect, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) offers a whole host of programs through its Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). You bump into a whole alphabet soup of acronyms pretty fast. There’s EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentives Program), CSP (Conservation Stewardship Program), RCPP (Regional Conservation Partnership Program), and more. 

But instead of getting too tied up on which program is which, Kevin Norton, the Associate Chief of NRCS, would suggest starting off with a trip down to your local NRCS office. The team there can help you develop a conservation plan. 

“What are your goals? What are your objectives? We go through a process of identifying issues, whether it's soil erosion or inefficient use of nutrients, those kinds of things. And we build out that conservation plan and then we would carry that to an application for the program that best helps them implement that conservation work,” said Norton.

The good news is that the range of practices that NRCS funds has expanded in recent years. 

“We've seen things move from more of the structural type measures like a terrace or a waterway system to control soil erosion, to practices that are more attuned to soil health and the broader conservation efforts of water quality and water quantity,” Norton said. That includes cover crops, conservation tillage, and precision agriculture.

But there can be advantages to finding your funding outside of the federal government. 

“We want to do what works for us, not what Uncle Sam tells us we have to do,” said Wisconsin dairy farmer Tom Zwald. “Because there might be something that they don't know about yet that works really well. And we don't want to kill the innovation by being strictly down one route.”

Zwald, his farming neighbor Todd Doornink, and about 30 other producers from their community have joined together to form the Western Wisconsin Conservation Council. The organization is a farmer-led non-profit that allows its members to apply for sustainable agriculture funding as a group.

So far, the Council has pulled in support from the WI Dept. of Ag, Trade, and Consumer Protection; the Nature Conservancy; Edge Dairy Co-op; and the Dairy Business Association of Wisconsin. The Council is then able to pass along the money it receives to fund its members work with things like cover crops, 4-R nutrient stewardship, and conservation tillage. 

There’s no doubt that it’s tough to find the time to type up grants after a full day on the farm. But Doornink feels it’s worth it to put the energy into bringing sustainability to his local watershed. 

“Everybody wants to live there. It's a common goal that everybody has, right?” he said. “Everybody wants clean water.” 

When you ask Doornink what sustainability means to him, he doesn’t even have to hesitate. “It means having the ability for my family to farm there for the next hundred years,” he said.

For more on what Tom Zwald is doing to improve the sustainability of his dairy farm, check out Mitchell’s visit with Tom and his mom Kay in our special “Field Talks” video.