SUBSCRIBE NOW
As low as 99¢ for the first month
SUBSCRIBE NOW
As low as 99¢ for the first month

Innovative conservation grant launched during tough year

Candace Krebs

Neither drought nor pandemic has kept the FARMS grant program from moving forward, although some adjustments are being made along the way as the first-of-its-kind on-farm research study is rolled out across the Central Plains.

Ten of the project participants are from Eastern Colorado, with 14 others scattered out across Kansas and Nebraska.

“We would have liked to get producers together in person at the beginning of project, but we haven’t been able to do that yet,” said chief grant coordinator Joni Mitchek, who also manages the Colorado Conservation Tillage Association from her family’s ranch near Kit Carson. “Thankfully it’s a really great group of producers, and they are already connecting in other ways.”

Cover crop seedlings begin to emerge through old crop residue in a High Plains field. Cover crops improve soil health but can be difficult to establish, especially during dry years. The FARMS grant, launched in early 2020, is helping 18 farmers in Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska make the transition to regenerative practices.

FARMS stands for Farmers Advancing Regenerative Management Systems. It is one of the first federally backed efforts to move research out of the academy and onto actual working farms, with long-time regenerative farming practitioners serving as experts and mentors. FARMS was among nine proposals funded late last year through USDA’s Conservation Innovation Grants program to provide financial, technical and social support for producers willing to conduct on-farm demonstration trials over a three-year period.

Fully $1 million of the $1.6 million FARMS grant is distributed directly to producer participants, while the remaining funding goes to evaluate soil health, nutrient density, economic factors and social impacts.

Six long-term regenerative practitioners and 18 transitioning producers were selected to participate from a pool of 70 applicants.

Aside from moving producer orientation on-line, Mitchek said the project has proceeded as planned, with assorted paperwork and baseline soil sampling already completed.

“One of the components of this project is a social evaluation. We wanted to interview producers each year about the barriers to adopting soil health practices,” she said “We’ve already been able to complete those for year one.”

An obvious challenge this year is drought.

“A lot of producers have said this is a very difficult year to get started, especially some of the transitioning producers,” she added. “It’s very difficult to get cover established when you don’t get rain. It’s no fun to put money into something and see it barely come up or just disappear.”

Fortunately the project was structured to accommodate extreme weather variability, a common feature of the plains ecosystem. Producers aren’t locked into the plans they’ve made. If environmental circumstances change, they are encouraged to make revisions.

“Yes, it’s difficult, but the reality is, that’s the environment we live in,” Mitchek said. 

Additionally, the FARMS grant extends greater flexibility to related EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentives Program) cost-share grants, observes Becky Ravenkamp, another member of the three-person grant administrative team who now lives in northeast Nebraska.

“The producer is not tied to the decision they put on paper until it’s implemented, so they can go back and change the practice to make it work,” Ravenkamp said. “If they can’t get their cover crop in, what’s another option?”

“When we were gathering input from producers, before we even wrote the grant application, flexibility came up as a barrier to getting involved in some of these projects,” Mitchek added. “It will be interesting to see what the participants do and the different ways they make adjustments.”

FARMS will also be dipping a toe into a big, complex and somewhat contentious question: what does it mean for a crop to be nutrient-dense? How should such a claim be defined and verified?

Trendy terms tend to get over-used and eventually lose their meaning, so Ravenkamp said she was eager to put some parameters around it. 

A new organization she heads up, Health First, submitted its first grain samples for testing this fall and is awaiting the results.

“We want to show if there are trends with the mineral content of grains grown in a regenerative system,” she said.

While they intend to start with something relatively easy to measure, eventually the group plans to explore the bioavailability of the nutrients and what implications that has for growing crops that are healthier for animals and people.

Long term, their goal is to insure the integrity of the expanding market for regeneratively grown food and feed that is proven to benefit the environment and offer higher nutritive value, Ravenkamp said.

Mitchek said a lot of producers are interested in learning how their crops and livestock measure up. They’d also like to maintain some control over the messaging, marketing and verification process as companies further along the supply chain get involved. 

“There’s kind of a sentiment (among producers) of seeing things labeled a certain way and then that label getting hijacked,” she said.

Farmers from across the area will have a chance to hear updates on the FARMS project at the High Plains No Till Conference, currently scheduled for February 2-3 in Burlington. Mitchek said CCTA is forging ahead with plans for an in-person meeting for now, although that could change depending on how the coronavirus pandemic plays out.

“I think we’re all kind of Zoomed out right now,” she said, speaking from her home office via Zoom.