A cornerstone of conservation programs has the planning process by which grower and NRCS assess the resource needs for the farm and identify useful practices that can be adopted. For specialty crop producers this has been particularly challenging – most of them have not participated in USDA programs and are very unlikely to have a conservation plan. Planning for diverse cropping situations that are prevalent in specialty crops is more complicated NRCS staff typically are not well-versed in the unique conservation and production practices for specialty crops, particularly the technical aspects of land management practices for specialty crops.
NRCS staff time to work with producers has been limited due to the implementation of multiple programs and the magnitude of work under the 2002 Farm Bill.
Since growers often need assistance in planning during the application process, technical assistance support is not currently available through the conservation programs.
Other possible means for providing technical assistance have been largely ineffective for specialty crops. Putting the Farm Bill to work has developed additional options by working directly with private consultants and with local Cooperative Extension offices to provide the necessary technical assistance. These avenues have proved to be quite successful and could easily be expanded.
CAP has developed a white Paper entitled Limited Access that describes in greater detail the impacts on grower participation and options for improving the opportunities for specialty crop growers and other new to conservation programs.
In many states, incentive and cost share are available only for scouting under the 595 pest management standard. Other techniques, such as the use of biological controls, mating disruption, and/or reduced risk pesticides, would create significant environmental benefits. Only a handful of states provide incentive payment rates for those mitigation techniques that would provide significant resource improvements in specialty crop production.
Close cooperation among growers groups, University staff, and NRCS in state such as Michigan and North Carolina has resulted in changes to the incentive and cost share structure for pest management that improved the mitigation of resource concerns in those states.
Critical issues have a significant impact on the ability of specialty crop producers to participate in EQIP or other conservation programs
Most specialty crop producers have had little contact with Farm Bill conservation programs or the National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). As a result, growers are unfamiliar with NRCS procedures or the possible benefits from participation in the conservation programs. Similarly, NRCS staff in many parts of the country have had limited contact with specialty crop producers and lack extensive technical experience in pest management. Therefore, an essential first step in improving access for specialty crop producers requires increasing the level of awareness and knowledge of both specialty crop producers and NRCS staff.
In addition, the State Technical Committee and Local Working Groups help set priorities for EQIP at the state and county levels, respectively. Making contact with and participating in the deliberations of those groups is an important part of increasing awareness and creating the working relationships, at the state and local levels, necessary to putting EQIP to work for specialty crop producers.
The process of applying for participation in EQIP can be somewhat daunting for growers who have had little or no experience with NRCS or with conservation programs. In addition to filling out the appropriate forms, growers must identify the conservation practices for which they want support. To aid in the application process we have developed a guide to applying for EQIP. The one shown here was developed for cherry growers in Michigan (Guide). While the process varies from state to state (for example, some states require that growers submit a conservation plan for their farms as part of their application) this example gives a good idea of the basic information growers need to get started.
The ranking of proposals is an important part of the EQIP application process. NRCS has significantly more applications than it has money to spend. Under the new Farm Bill, applications are to be ranked by the level of environmental benefits they provide in meeting national priorities and resource concerns. This has proved problematic for specialty crop producers in several ways:
CAP and its partners have been active in working with NRCS to ensure that the ranking criteria fully account for the multiple benefits of specialty crop conservation practices.
Download the CAP White Paper regarding "How a Lack of Conservation Planning and Technical Assistance is Limiting the Ability of Small Farmers and Specialty Crop Producers to Participate in Federal Conservation Programs" (PDF Format)