What are the steps I must take to take advantage of cost-share programs offered by NRCS and TDA?
Step 1: Think about your goals for your land. These goals will help you determine what practices you would like to install on your property. Keep in mind we prioritize funding and technical assistance based on natural resource concerns on your land. We place a high priority on practices that address soil erosion and water quality on agricultural land.
Step 2: Before we can start a conservation plan contract for your property, you must first obtain farm and tract numbers from the Knox County Farm Service Agency (FSA). Bring your property deed with you when you go to the FSA to sign up, but call first to be sure that you don't already have farm and tract numbers assigned to your property. The FSA office is located in the same building with us, and their phone number is the same 865-533-3338, but they are extension 2. If you are not interested in obtaining cost-share funds and only require technical assistance, you may skip this step. We will conduct a site visit on your farm regardless of your Farm and Tract number status, but it's always a good idea to get this step out of the way at the beginning of the planning process.
Step 3: Schedule a field visit with a conservationist. Come by the office or, if calling is more convenient, our number is 865-523-3338 ext.3. We serve landowners on a first-come, first-served basis, and will schedule your field visit accordingly. We generally try to schedule field visits within 3 weeks of your request.
Step 4: When you meet with the conservationist, have your plans ready to review. Start thinking about timelines and available contractors in your area. You will be responsible for setting up a pre-construction conference with the contractor of your choice, a conservationist from our office, and you, the landowner. In the beginning we like to talk about all of your plans so that we may design a comprehensive plan to address as many of your goals as possible, and then we can prioritize the Best Management Practices that address the most serious erosion or water quality concerns first. A comprehensive plan may best be accomplished by using a combination of programs spaced over time to maximize benefit to the environment, your livestock or cropland, and ultimately your bottom-line. Once you sign a contract to begin a particular program, it is advisable to implement your practice soon afterward. By breaking a conservation plan into manageble phases we find that there are fewer alterations that must be approved when under contract. Be sure to contact your conservationist with any proposed changes or any questions you might have about your plan. Any changes to your plan must be approved in advance--we cannot reimburse you for practices that are not installed to our standards and specifications.
I don't want to sign a contract; what if I just need advice?
We are available to give technical assistance free of charge, with no obligation. However, if you think you might need to apply for one of our programs in the future, it might be a good idea to go ahead and get your farm and tract numbers from FSA to expedite the application process at a later date.
How much cost-share can I get?
There are several cost-share programs available to local landowners through both the State and Federal government. We will recommend the one that is best for you based on timing, availability of funds and natural resource concerns found on your property. In general, landowners who have approved contracts will receive 75% of the STATE AVERAGE cost of installing a practice. In urban counties, this percentage usually turns out to be closer to 40% - 50% of the actual cost of installing a practice. It is up to the landowner to hire a contractor who can install the practice(s) according to NRCS Standards and Specifications for the best possible price to ensure the highest possible cost-share reimbursement. The landowner is also able to install the practice(s) themselves, provided they have the right equipment and understand the NRCS Standards and Specifications. The Conservationist will review the constrction specifications with the landowner and the contractor during the pre-construction conference.
All cost-share programs are on a reimbursement basis; meaning that the landowner will have to pay for the supplies and labor up front, retain all receipts and invoices and submit them to the Knoxville Field Office upon completion of contracted best management practices.
Why do these cost-share programs exist?
The USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service was formed in response to the Dust Bowl, in order to prevent that kind of overwhelming soil erosion from happening again on US farms. Back in those days, farmers were not managing their land in a sustainable way. They simply did not understand the implications and consequences of mono-crop production and excessive tillage. We now have the resources and knowledge to not only manage our farmlands in a sustainable way, but we also have the tools to spread awareness of the importance of soil and water conservation to farmers throughout the country.
Is it difficult to persuade farmers to participate in these programs?
Most farmers understand the importance of soil health and the need for nutrients and organic matter. They understand the need for rotational grazing systems and they quickly see that using these types of BMPs in the management in their farms saves them money on hay, fertilizer, soil amendments, and often helps them retain more water in their fields as well. There are definite economic benefits to these BMPs (Best Management Practices), much like a lot of “green” practices help people save money over time.
It can be very difficult to persuade farmers to implement some BMPs, particularly when we are asking them to limit livestock access to their own land and water resources. The way the State of TN sees it, waters that run through all properties, regardless of the landowner, are “waters of the State” as long as they are not ephemeral streams (water only present part of the year). Agricultural producers are exempt from Clean Water Act regulations; that is, no regulatory agency, whether it is the State, Feds or the local municipalities, can issue fines to farmers for contributing to water quality impairment. The government has therefore incentivized good stewardship of land and water resources with cost-share fund programs. In short, we ask them to install certain BMPs in exchange for kicking in part of the cost of installing those BMPs. There are several Federal and State programs, similar to grant programs, that are basically recurring annual funds given to each County to allocate to farmers as that County’s ag leaders see fit. Each County sets its own natural resource priorities each year – so if there is a drought and farmers are having a hard time getting fresh water to their animals, that year we might say, let’s make watering tanks a priority this year and pay farmers 50% - 75% of the cost of installing those watering tanks.
That is not the only way to convince farmers to change their ways. There are a host of benefits to installing these BMPs, as well, above and beyond government funding assistance. The practices we promote are designed to specifically reduce soil erosion and improve water quality, but they also help farmers improve the efficiency of their operations by reducing veterinary bills, extending the forage season and reducing the amount of hay necessary to over-winter livestock, among others.
What is a rotational grazing system?
A rotational grazing system is basically splitting your field(s) using fencing, allowing livestock in one field and letting the others rest and regrow. Rotating pastures this way really improves forages for livestock, saves the farmers money on hay, reduces soil erosion, improves water quality, etc. It is one of our most promoted practices.
What are some of the most commonly installed Best Management Practices (BMPs)?
Our most commonly installed BMPs in Knox County are watering facilities (clean, fresh sources of water in a frost-proof tank), cross fencing (to establish rotational grazing systems), exclusion fencing (to limit livestock access to streams, ponds, rivers, sinkholes, and other environmentally sensitive areas), stream crossings (to allow livestock to cross a stream safely without compromising the integrity of the streambank – thereby reducing soil erosion) and heavy use area protection pads (to reinforce cattle feeding areas so that they don’t become a muddy mess). These practices generally serve the purpose of improving the farmer’s operation while reducing the amount of sediment and pathogens that are entering into adjacent streams and rivers from that particular farm.
What BMPs would you like to see more of on Knox County farms?
We’d like to see more streambank stabilization and more riparian buffer installation. Streambanks become compromised and incised when heavy rains fall on impervious (impenetrable) surfaces (due to roads, homes, buildings, etc. taking the place of the soil that used to infiltrate that rainwater) and have nowhere else to go but into the nearest stream, river, etc. That water rushes through those narrow corridors that used to only have to handle a small amount of water before all the roads, etc. were built, and severely erode the banks on either side of those corridors. By laying back the banks and stabilizing them with natural vegetation, rip-rap, or a combination of the two, we can heal those waterways, reduce soil erosion, improve habitat for fish and other aquatic species and stop the loss of land.
Riparian buffers are vegetated areas adjacent to streams and rivers. Have you ever seen folks mow their lawns right up next to a stream? To us, that is a big no-no (same goes for allowing livestock to graze right up to a stream). By planting shrubs, trees, grasses, etc. anywhere from 25-50’ (or more) out from the top of the bank, you can significantly reduce the amount of soil erosion into that waterway. On a farm, this practice not only reduces soil erosion, but that buffer can stop the chemicals that are applied onto the land by slowing down the water that would otherwise carry them into the waterway, allowing it to infiltrate into the soil, and allowing the soil to work its magic by immobilizing the toxins in the water. The most natural way of cleaning water is allowing it to percolate through soil. This is what we are trying to do by planting riparian buffers and incentivizing the practice of excluding livestock from those riparian areas to local farmers.