New Conservation Option for Organic Farms Unveiled
March 2, 2016
U.S. Department of Agriculture to assist in establishing up to 20,000 acres of new conservation buffers
Washington, DC, February 26, 2016 – The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) today announced a new conservation option for organic farmers–cost-share and land rental payments for field border buffers. Conservation buffers are an important conservation practice for all farms, but especially for organic farmers. The introduction of a payment option for organic buffers will help farmers meet USDA organic certification requirements that they maintain or improve the natural resources (including soil and water quality), support biodiversity and native species, and develop habitat for beneficial insects.
The announcement of USDA’s new conservation option was made today at the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES) annual conference in La Crosse, WI by USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) Deputy Administrator for Farm Programs, Brad Pfaff. The initiative aims to assist organic farmers in establishing up to 20,000 acres of new conservation buffers through the Continuous Conservation Reserve Program (CCRP). Starting next month, organic farmers will be eligible to enroll windbreaks, filter strips, pollinator strips, and field borders planted to native grasses, shrubs, and trees in the program.
Over 25 years ago the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) helped to develop the legal underpinnings for CCRP as part of the 1990 Farm Bill and has championed the program ever since that time. This year NSAC worked closely with FSA to develop the new organic initiative.
“We congratulate FSA on the launch of the new organic field border initiative and applaud their commitment to do more outreach to organic farmers. FSA leadership has made the right decision in seeking to tailor these types of programs to the specific needs organic farmers,” said Ferd Hoefner, NSAC Policy Director. “We encourage organic farmers to give this new option careful consideration. This new initiative has the potential to pay real dividends for farm balance sheets and for the environment.”
Organic farming already provides multiple environmental benefits, including improving soil health, protecting water quality, and increasing biodiversity. Field borders and buffers on organic farms can further enhance positive environmental outcomes by trapping sediment, creating habitat for pollinators, and reducing pesticide and genetic drift from neighboring farms.
“I like to try to get as many different benefits out of required organic field borders as possible,”said Ron Rosmann, a Harlan, IA-based farmer and member of Practical Farmers of Iowa. “I’ve been working about 10 years to improve those on our own farm.”
“Our field borders are now becoming multi-species trees and shrubs, which serve as windbreak protection and include pollinator species and rare and declining native species. Many organic farmers have viewed field borders as a necessary, but not a financially productive, resource. The new FSA initiative should definitely help in that regard,” Rosmann said.
Organic farmers can enroll any eligible CCRP buffer practice in the new 20,000-acre initiative.Conservation practices eligible for CCRP include riparian, wetland, and wildlife habitat buffers, filter strips, wetland restoration, grass waterways, shelterbelts, windbreaks, living snow fences, and contour grass strips.
“We encourage farmers to look in particular at the CCRP practices for pollinator strips, upland buffers, and where ecologically appropriate, windbreaks,” said Hoefner. “In cases where a farm field is bordered by a stream, the CCRP filter strip or riparian buffer practices will also be quite useful. Each of these five practices come with special enrollment payment incentives, which also make them particularly attractive financially.”
CCRP is a voluntary program that helps protect millions of acres of America’s most environmentally sensitive farmland. The program specifically targets the blocks of land that are most vulnerable to erosion, which is key for preventing polluted runoff and preserving prime acres for wildlife habitat. In exchange for removing environmentally sensitive land from production, CCRP contracts include an annual rental payment, certain incentive payments, and cost-share payments to install the practice.
As the name implies, enrollment in the CCRP happens on a continuous basis, with eligible acres automatically accepted into the program. This differs from CCRP’s parent program, the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which features a competitive enrollment process during a defined sign-up period.
Currently, over 242,000 farms totaling over 6.6 million acres are enrolled in CCRP, representing over 28 percent of all acres enrolled in its parent program, CRP.
In addition to the conservation buffer initiative, FSA today also announced additional services to which organic farmers have access. Included among these is the Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program (NAP), which provides financial assistance for crop losses due to natural disasters. FSA is currently in the process of streamlining NAP procedures so that organic farmers can be paid at the higher organic, rather than the lower conventional price, for their lost crops. FSA is also offering organic farmers the free service of mapping farm and field boundaries and reporting organic acreage, information that farmers can then use when working with organic certifiers or crop insurance agents.
“FSA local offices have not always been the friendliest of places for organic farmers,” noted Hoefner. “By offering new, tailored services like the conservation buffer initiative, FSA is taking important steps to change this image. FSA should be commended for building new bridges to farmers, including female, minority, beginning, and organic farmers, who have been often excluded in the past. It will take time to build trust, but positive, concrete program offerings like the one announced today will go a long way toward forging new relationships,” Hoefner said.
A chart with additional information on special incentive payments available for particular field border buffer options is available via the NSAC website.