Landowners encouraged to use federal funds for conservation

Money is available to farmers to help with cover crops, tillage management and other activities.
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HR Farms, which is in the Indian Mill Creek watershed, participates in many conservation practices. Courtesy Jessie Schulte

Implementing conservation practices in West Michigan is now a lot easier for landowners and agricultural producers in the Rogue River and Indian Mill Creek watersheds in Kent, Montcalm, Newaygo and Ottawa counties, courtesy of the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) funded by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Landowners and producers in those watershed areas have access to a remaining $1.3 million to apply conservation practices in an effort to protect, restore and improve natural resources such as water quality, soil quality and animal outdoor habitation.

The conservation practices that Kent Conservation District, the lead partner assisting NRCS on the ground, are encouraging farmers and landowners to commit to utilizing are cover crops, residue and tillage management, grade stabilizing structures, stream bank stabilization, stream buffers, stream crossing, tree/shrub establishments and conservation cover-pollinator habitat.

According to the representatives from the Kent Conservation District, the practices are both agriculturally and economically beneficial to the community.

Cover crops reduce raindrop impact, water velocity on soil, and soil compaction while increasing soil organic matter. Residue and tillage management reduces sheet, rill and wind erosion and excessive sediment in surface water and improves soil health while reducing energy use.

“Cover crops are basically species that are seeded into farm fields to help protect the nutrients in the soil,” said Jessie Schulte, district manager for the Kent Conservation District. “The soil should not be bare, so when we see farmers tilling in the fall and the winter, that actually negatively impacts the soil health because it cannot store as much water during droughts in the summer. Cover crops are like radishes and different grasses. You can put rye grass on the field or oats on the field during the winter and it will feed the healthy bacteria in the soil, keep the carbon and phosphorus in the soil. The soil will then be more hydrated and nutrient-rich when it comes to the summer when we start planting, so it is a way of protecting their fields.”

Grade stabilization structures like slopes, soil type and drainage areas can reduce sediment and nutrient loss to surface waters. Stream bank stabilization prevents the loss of land, maintains flow capacity of streams and reduces sediment. It enhances the corridor for aesthetics, recreation and wildlife.

Stream buffers, like trees next to a waterway, reduce flooding by increasing rain filtration and stopping soil and excess nutrients from getting in the waterway, and it helps to store groundwater and slow the release of it. Establishing stream crossings provides safe access for livestock and it reduces bank erosion and therefore sediment and nutrient loss.

Tree/shrub establishment made up of woody plants provide a safe place for wildlife habitat, long-term erosion control and improvement of water quality and it enhances the aesthetic of property, according to the KCD. Conservation cover — pollinator habitat — is made up of native warm season grasses and 15 species of wildflowers. It is important for food and it serves as a cover for pollinator species, providing seeds, nectar and pollen. It also serves as a year-round protective cover from predators and weather. 

Although the NRCS funds will not cover the cost for all of the practices that landowners will try to implement, there is an additional $53,000 in funding from the Michigan Department of Environment Great Lakes and Energy Section 319 water quality grant for individuals to apply for.

“If a farmer located in this area wants to install cover crops or a grassed waterway, for example, they could receive funding from both the USDA NRCS pool and the State 319 grant dollars,” said Schulte. “The goal of the funds is to help communities restore their waters impaired by increased runoff of sediment and nutrients from adjacent landscapes, resulting in degradation of high-quality surface waters.”

Katie Droscha, soil conservationist for the Kent Conservation District, said there is a flat rate for each conservation practice.

“How it is calculated is how many acres a farmer will enroll into the RCPP,” she said. “For example, Farmer A might enroll 100 acres, Farmer B might enroll 40 acres and Farmer C might enroll 300 acres. So, the amount of money that is awarded to the participant depends on a rate like dollars per acre for cover crops, dollars per linear foot for windbreaks that are installed. How many square feet for concrete that is poured for a sediment control basin. It all depends on the practice and the number of units a farmer would like to enroll.”

Although the practices can become expensive, Droscha said it is economically beneficial in the long run.

According to the Kent Conservation District, one ton of eroded soil equals two pounds of nitrogen and one pound of phosphorus. A USDA study showed that soil enrolled in conservation practices saves farmers 10 tons per acre of soil and as a result, conservation practices save landowners $18 per acre in fertilizer value.

Addressing soil erosion also can benefit water quality. Ten tons per acre of soil saved by enrolling in conservation practices equal $42 per acre for water quality improvement. 

Since the program started in 2017, Droscha said 30 applicants have participated in the RCPP. Two of the farms they have been in partnership with are HR Farms and Kruithoff Farms in Kent County.

HR Farms is in the Indian Mill Creek watershed. The waterways that flow into Indian Mill Creek go directly through the farm.

Over the past eight years, HR Farms has cultivated row crops such as corn, barley, wheat, rye and soybeans, rotating them as necessary for sustainability. This past year, the farm started raising livestock, namely sheep and Texas Longhorn cattle.

“We have been working with the Kent County NRCS to restore some of the erosion and possibly unsustainable practices that have occurred after many years of the land being farmed,” said Bethany J. Debski, HR Farms owner and land quality advocate. “With the help of NRCS, we intend to put some valuable practices into place over the next year or so, including planting native grassed waterways and soil erosion preventive measures. We want to keep our farm, the waterways, and neighboring properties healthy and properly usable for many generations to come. We respect and appreciate nature and intend to do all that we can to keep the future sustainable.”

Kruithoff‘s Farm in Kent County raises livestock and grows field crops. It is connected to Michigan Farm Bureau and the Michigan Pork Producers and farmland preservation efforts.

“We have had a great relationship working with the Kent County NRCS to improve soil and water quality on our farms. Farmers benefit when soil health improves and the Kent County NRCS programs help farmers execute those soil-improving practices. We all benefit from clean water and great soil,” said Justin Kruithoff.

The Kent Conservation District’s push to bring awareness of the availably of funds to implement conservation practices originated from the Grand River restoration project. Wendy Ogilvie, director of environmental programs for the Grand Valley Metro Council, said at least 20% of the $8 million that was awarded by the federal government for the restoration project had to go toward agricultural practices, hence the conservation practices. The RCPP will be financially supported until 2023. 

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