State leads nation in organic EQIP projects
Farmers in California took notice when the 2008 Farm Bill set aside conservation funding for certified organic producers and those transitioning to organic. During the first year it was offered, California led the nation with 158 contracts for conservation work carried out through organic provisions in the Environmental Quality Incentives Program.
The organic provisions form part of the overall EQIP program, which provides cost-share assistance to farmers and ranchers for projects that benefit the environment, such as the protection of soil, water, air and wildlife resources.
San Joaquin County farmer Jack Bozzano tends to his young olive trees that he is in the process of certifying as organic with some help from the USDA's Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). The latest farm bill sets aside EQIP funds specifically for organic producers and those transitioning to organic.
Among the first farmers to participate in the organic EQIP program is San Joaquin County farmer Jack Bozzano, who grows organic olives, cherries and some vegetable crops. Bozzano applied for EQIP last summer and was approved for funds in the fall. The money will help pay for nutrient management, cover cropping, mulching and integrated pest management projects.
"I was awarded an EQIP grant for transitioning my olives to organic," said Bozzano, owner of Quality Packing and Shipping Inc. and Bozzano Olive Ranch. "I'm doing it because I like to keep ahead of the curve. It is nice they have money for these projects."
Bozzano used a portion of the EQIP funds to plant a cover crop between his rows of olive trees, to build organic matter and add nitrogen to the soil. To improve nutrient management, he is taking samples from the petioles, soil and water. Based on the results, he will use the information to satisfy basic requirements needed by the olive trees.
An additional portion of the EQIP money will go for an integrated pest management project, using pheromone attractants to trap for the olive fruit fly. He also built a concrete slab needed for mulching olive pumice, which remains after the oil is extracted from the olives.
"EQIP requires the carbon-nitrogen ratio to be below 30-to-1, so we have to add greens to this to get to that ratio," Bozzano said.
He said he's pleased with the program thus far, but noted that much of the process involves filling out paperwork.
"Paperwork is probably 50 to 70 percent of EQIP. Everything has to be documented and everybody needs a copy. I'm just trying to learn as I go," said Bozzano, who began transitioning his farm to organic in 2006.
San Joaquin County farmer Jack Bozzano used organic EQIP funds to plant a "plowdown" cover crop in his olive orchard to build organic matter and add nutrients to the soil.
In Santa Cruz County, Bruce Manildi of Fogline Farm, a community-supported agriculture operation in Soquel, is in the process of transitioning to organic. He has used EQIP funds to aid in the transition.
"EQIP is basically paying us money to transition to organic, which is a good thing because it costs more to buy what you need for organic than non-organic," said Manildi, a third-generation farmer who returned to the farm after a career in electronics. "It is tedious to do it, but I think it is worthwhile."
In his first year of a three-year transition to organic for his diversified farm, where he raises fruits, vegetables, chickens and pigs, Manildi is nine months into the organic certification process. He estimates that he will receive about $20,000 through the EQIP program, which is administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service.
"In some cases, we have to more than match that $20,000 figure. You are paid a fixed amount per acre and then whatever it takes, it takes," Manildi said. "In some cases, it pretty much pays for the material and then it is up to us to cover our labor and equipment."
Manildi's plans including planting a cover crop, preventing roads from washing out, planting a hedgerow and mulching.
One major benefit of the program, he said, is working with the local NRCS office.
"I really love the people in our NRCS office. They are really helpful. They have a lot of resources, not that they know everything, but they know where to get everything," Manildi said. "Farmers need to check it out and see what programs are available and what they actually want to do."
The latest deadline for submitting EQIP applications passed just last week, but California NRCS spokeswoman Anita Brown said the agency accepts applications year-round. That means farmers can plan ahead for the next round of funding, which will be for fiscal year 2011. She added that it is advantageous to work with the local NRCS office during the slower times of the year, to build an application that offers the greatest environmental benefit.
"There is a huge value to going into your local NRCS office when they have time to breathe, and plan with them. Sometimes there is information available that ends up giving us a better set of practices in a better timeline that ends up being just as effective or more effective, maybe at less cost, if you can take the time to plan," Brown said. "Visiting the local NRCS office may also increase one's chances of being funded, since applications are scored based on environmental benefit. People who have already been to the office and have their applications on file are readily poised to take advantage of that money."
During the first year of the organic EQIP program in 2009, the cost share for organic growers was 50 percent. In the new round, the EQIP program will provide up to 75 percent of costs. Applicants with limited financial resources (defined on a county-by-county basis) can receive up to 90 percent of the costs of conservation practices.
Growers can learn more about the organic EQIP program through their local NRCS office. To find your local office, go to www.ca.nrcs.usda.gov.
(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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