Conservationist: Farm Bill Extension Has Upside

3/9/2013 7:00 AM
By Ann Wilmer Maryland Correspondent

The bad news is that Congress failed to pass a new Farm Bill; but that may also be the good news.

Until Congress acts on the 2013 legislation, the 2012 Farm Bill is still in effect, according to Nelson Brice, district conservationist with the USDA-Natural Resource Conservation Service.

That means that Chesapeake Bay Watershed Initiative funding has been reinstated.

“Money we weren’t sure we were going to have, will be available after all. We are able to carry on with the program this year same as last year. It’s not affecting our mission.” Brice said.

Brice said that the newest part of the Farm Bill is the energy initiative and that’s been going on for about two years. According to USDA, it will continue to be a big part of the new Farm Bill when it is enacted.

“The purpose is to help farmers cut energy costs,” Brice said. “This is especially important to poultry farmers.”

Among the kinds of projects such funding can underwrite, he said, are capital improvements, adequate insulation, better lighting, and ventilation equipment to move air through the houses to maintain good air quality for the health of the birds.

The program has helped many area farmers put in water control structures that allow them to control water depth and, in the event of heavy rain, allow the sediment to settle before draining the ditch.

Heavy use areas — concrete pads in high-use areas at the end of poultry houses — make it possible to do a more thorough job of clean-up between flocks without undue impact on water quality.

“We want to keep our poultry waste in the chicken house, storage structure or applied to the land,” Brice said. “It’s impossible to clean up a dirt floor or rock-filled driveway, but the pad is easy to clean — makes for less time that manure is exposed to rain or wind to spread it before it can be properly applied.”

Another area in which the Farm Bill benefits farmers is with help in preparing a nutrient management plan.

“All farmers need a nutrient management plan, no exceptions,” Brice said. “The Farm Bill has helped with that in the past, whether it is a Comprehensive Nutrient Management Plan (CNMP) or a slightly less involved NMP.”

The NMP states what crop you are planning, what fertilizer, what nutrients are in your soil and what you are going to add to the store. The Maryland Department of Agriculture and the Extension service must approve the plan. Extension service employees write some of these plans and some are prepared by consultants with the help of cost-share funds. For more information about cost-share, go to http://mda2.maryland.gov/resource_conservation/Pages/nmp.aspx.

Adding livestock to a farm’s operations requires a CNMP and, usually, a Confined Animal Feeding Operation or CAFO permit, Brice said. The permit application can be prepared by district or state staff, but it might be quicker to have a technical service provider write them for you, he said. The 2012 Farm Bill does fund cost share for TSP services.

“The CNMP basically consists of a conservation plan that we’ve been doing for 70 years in combination with a nutrient management plan,” Brice said.

Since there are many fingers in this pie, navigating the regulations often requires help. In the near future, the NRCS will be providing even more help and explanation because, Brice said, there is a “disconnect between Maryland’s nutrient management rules and CAFO. The difference involves prescribed regulations for manure storage and application.”

“If you grow chickens, do you follow Maryland rules or CAFO rules?” he said. It’s not clear.

“Some of the nutrient management requirements are going to go back to the conservation plan. These are going to have work together,” he said.

Brice said he expects that once all the agencies involved have figured out how to resolve these conflicts they will offer training for farmers.

Some USDA programs are focused on enhancing revenue streams. For example, there is a high tunnel initiative for which there are cost-share funds available through the Farm Bill’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). The initiative offers financial and technical assistance to help producers extend the growing season for high-value crops in an environmentally safe manner.

Adjusted gross income requirements have a bearing on whether farmers are eligible for Farm Bill funding of programs such as price supports or conservation.

“If you get two-thirds of your income from the farming operation, there is essentially no limit — even if you make over $1 million,” Brice said.


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