Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Organic EQIP Sign-Up Deadline is March 4

The 2011 sign-up for the EQIP Organic Initiative is now open. 
The deadline is March 4, 2011. 
The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) is a US Department of Agriculture program that helps farmers and ranchers who want to protect natural resources on their farms. Producers can apply for funds and technical assistance through this program. EQIP has an Organic Initiative available only for organic agricultural producers and those transitioning to organic.

The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) is a voluntary U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) conservation program administered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS, an agency within USDA). EQIP provides financial and technical assistance to growers who face threats to soil, water, air, and related natural resources on their land. Through EQIP, NRCS develops contracts with agricultural producers to implement conservation practices that address environmental natural resource problems. Payments are made to producers once conservation practices are completed according to NRCS requirements. EQIP is open to applications from all agriculture producers, regardless of whether or not they are organic.

The EQIP Organic Initiative
In 2009, NRCS created the EQIP Organic Initiative, a targeted program in EQIP which provides financial and technical assistance specifically to existing organic farmers and to growers transitioning to organic production systems. The Organic Initiative funds conservation measures specific to organic production systems. USDA allocated $50 million for the Organic Initiative in 2010, and has the same amount for 2011. Sign-up for the 2011 Organic Initiative is open here in NC until March 4, 2011

In the Counties of Watauga and Ashe (North Carolina), our NRCS District Conservationist is David Tucker. He tells me that the best way to reach him is at the Jefferson USDA Service Center (336-246-8875, extension 2), between 8:00 AM and 8:30 AM. Because he works several Counties, his location after 8:30 AM will vary day to day, but the folks at the Jefferson USDA Service Center will be able to relay messages and provide further information.

Certified organic growers and those transitioning to organic can apply to both the regular EQIP and the EQIP Organic Initiative. The regular EQIP has higher payment limitations but is a much more competitive program. The EQIP Organic Initiative has lower payment limitations, but the pool of applicants will be smaller and less competitive. Visit the EQIP webpage on the NRCS website for more information on the non-organic EQIP.

The EQIP Organic Initiative is available to agricultural producers who are:
  • In the process of transitioning to organic.
  • Already certified organic (or exempt) and interested in transitioning more acreage to organic.
  • Already certified organic (or exempt) and interested in adopting conservation measures on their farm.
  • Already certified organic (or exempt) and interested in transitioning more acreage to organic AND adopting conservation measures on their farm.
*Also included are “exempt producers,” whose gross agricultural income from organic sales total $5,000 or less annually but who still comply with the applicable organic production, handling, and labeling requirements mandated for certified organic producers.
Other eligibility requirements include the following:
  • The applicant must be either an agricultural producer with at least $1,000 in farm income or a private, non-industrial owner of working forest land.
  • The applicant must be the owner or operator on record and must have documentable control over the land for the EQIP contract period.
  • The applicant's average annual adjusted gross income must not exceed $1 million, unless two-thirds of that income is from agriculture, ranching, or forestry operations.
  • The applicant is in compliance with provisions to protect highly erodible land and wetlands. For more information, read the NRCS webpage on these compliance provisions.
In 2009, the EQIP Organic Initiative had six core conservation practices related to organic farming. Producers applied to NRCS for financial and technical assistance for implementing these six practices on their farms. In addition to the six, some states offered facilitating practices for which producers could receive assistance.
This year, states must select which practices they will offer to growers under the initiative. States have until January 3, 2011 to decide which practices they will offer. NRCS Headquarters has provided state offices with a comparison chart identifying conservation practices that align with requirements of the National Organic Program. Contact your state NRCS office or your local NRCS Service Center to find out which practices your state will offer. 

State NRCS offices must develop payment schedules for each of the practices they offer through the Organic Initiative by January 3, 2011. In developing the FY 2010 Organic Initiative payment schedules, states must take into consideration increased costs and income foregone as a result of implementing a practice on an organic or transitioning operation.
Producers who receive contracts through the initiative will receive 75 percent of the cost of implementing the conservation practices. Beginning, socially disadvantaged, and limited resource farmers (those considered historically under-served by the USDA) will receive 90 percent of the cost of implementing the conservation practices.
Participants in the EQIP Organic Initiative can receive a maximum of $20,000 per year, and no more than $80,000 over six years. 

The Application Process
Producers interested in applying for the EQIP Organic Initiative should visit their local NRCS Service Center to begin the application process. Below are the basic steps for applying to the program. 

Please note that there are different requirements depending on whether you are a certified organic producer or are transitioning to organic production.

All applicants have to fill out a Conservation Program Application (form NRCS-CPA-1200). Applicants also need to establish a record with the USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) at their local FSA Service Center, if they have not already done so. The FSA Service Centers are often in the same building as the NRCS Service Centers (this is true for both Watauga and Ashe Counties in NC). 

Certified organic producers must submit a copy of their current Organic System Plan and the name and contact information of the USDA-accredited certifying agent for their operation.

Producers transitioning organic production must submit a "self-certification" letter that states the applicant "agrees to develop and implement conservation practices for certified organic production that are consistent with an organic system plan." Transitioning producers must also have contacted a USDA-accredited certifying agent that you plan to certify with and provide NRCS with the name. The USDA National Organic Program has an online list of USDA-accredited certifying agents.

If you applied to the EQIP Organic Initiative in 2009 and your application was deferred, you will receive a letter from NRCS informing you of your options for 2010. If you do not receive a letter, please contact your local NRCS Service Center.

Although the application process for EQIP is continuous, NRCS establishes periodic deadlines (typically once a year) where they rank all of the applications they have received to determine who will get a contract. In North Carolina, this application deadline is March 4, 2011.

NRCS established two separate ranking pools for applications, one for transitioning farmers without any current certified organic production, and one for existing certified organic farmers who are either adding new transitional production or adopting new conservation measures on existing organic production.  In both cases, those in these special ranking pools will be competing only against applicants in the same pool, and will not compete with applicants in the much, much larger general EQIP pool.  

For More Information:
The EQIP Organic Initiative Guidance for 2011 (pdf) - This document is the instructions developed by the NRCS headquarters on how states must implement the 2010 EQIP Organic Initiative.

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