Conservation Innovation Grants

by Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Love ag research? The 2018 Farm Bill offers a new opportunity for qualifying farmers to partner with NRCS to get part of $25 million in grant money to use on-farm conservation measure and study their effectiveness. Kari Cohen, projects branch chief with USDA NRCS in Washington D.C., presented a webinar on the topic recently, highlighting what applicants should know during the application process.

On-Farm Conservation Innovation Trials are open to anyone whose main business relates to farming, non-governmental groups experienced working with ag operators. Cohen added that it’s a component of the Conservation Innovation Grants, which is also a part of the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). The On-Farm Trials include the Soil Health Demo Trial, which has similar parameters and operates in a similar fashion.

“We have lumped the two together,” Cohen said. “One key thing is how on-farm trials differ from CIG Classic programs.”

On-Farm Trials are different from the CIG Classic programs in that the latter “funds the development of promising approaches and technologies which may or may not be successful,” Cohen said. Funding is only rarely provided to producers.

“On-Farm Trials funds implementation and evaluation of innovative approaches, systems and practices that we know provide a conservation benefit. Funding must be provided directly to producers to offset the risk of implementing innovative approaches.”

The application deadline is July 15, 2019 at 5 p.m. Eastern time through www.grants.gov. Emailed requests will not be accepted.

Up to $5 million per entity is awarded, with $250,000 as the minimum award size. Projects may be 3 to 5 years in duration.

“We definitely want to know what the conservation impact of the innovation is doing on the ground, but it’s also critical to capture the economic outcome,” Cohen said. “What’s going to be the impact to the bottom line?”

The priorities for the 2019 On-Farm Trials are irrigation management, precision agriculture and management technologies and strategies.

For the Soil Health Demo Trial, the NRCS anticipates spending up to $10 million through the On-Farm Trials. The purpose is to support greater adoption of soil health management systems and practices.

“Awardees are required to use consistent evaluation protocols and methods for assessing soil carbon changes and other soil health outcomes,” Cohen said. “Awardees consent to NRCS using data for Congressionally-mandated reporting.

For the Soil Health Trials, producers must comply with Highly Erodible Lands/Wetlands Conservation provisions, meet adjusted gross income requirements, and be EQIP eligible, though incentive payments don’t count towards the EQIP payment cap for any one farmer.

The responsibilities of the NRCS include environmental evaluations, checking eligibility, technical oversight, and technical assistance as requested.

Cohen noted that priority consideration will be given to projects “that substantively involve historically underserved producers.”

“No On-Farm Trials funding can be used to pay for indirect costs,” Cohen added. “That’s a difference between CIG Classic, where indirect costs are eligible to be reimbursed.”

Direct administrative costs like filling out required reports or organizing partner meetings are okay. Cohen recommended reaching out to the NRCS office in the farmer’s state of operation.

Applicants should describe the amounts and composition of producer incentive payments, propose amount of technical assistance funding required, and propose the amount of funding needed for completion of project evaluations.

No specific level of contributions is required.

“The magnitude and significance of value-added contributions — direct funding and in-kind support — are considered in project evaluation criteria,” Cohen said. “Examples of value-added contributors include producer outreach and education, communications activities and environmental monitoring.”

The process for reviewing begins with a peer review, state office review and then the NRCS chief makes award selections, announcing the awards in October. Projects should begin Dec. 1.

For more information, email nrcsig@wdc.usda.gov.

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