Rod Grams obtained EQIP funding to upgrade his irrigation system, and is now using less water and fertilizer in his pear orchard.
PHOTO COURTESY OF NRCS
Rod Grams, a pear grower at Monitor, Washington, no longer has to fix leaky irrigation pipes and move hand lines to irrigate the trees.
Last year, Grams replaced his rusty steel mainline with PVC pipe and converted hand lines to microsprinklers in a ten-acre pear block. It was something he’d wanted to do for a while, he said, but the cost would have been a financial burden. Then, his field horticulturist told him about the federal Environmental Quality Incentives Program.
He contacted the local resources conservationist Amy Hendershot who helped him apply for cost-sharing funds through EQIP, which is administered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service. He also received funding from the Cascadia Conservation District, which operates in Chelan County, Washington. Together, the grants covered more than 80 percent of the cost of his irrigation system upgrades.
“It worked out really great,” he said. “The mainline was old and rusty and always springing leaks. And it’s nice to go out and turn on a valve instead of changing the hand lines.”
He now monitors soil moisture using probes to assess when to irrigate and how much water to apply. Apart from the new system being more convenient, it’s reduced his water use by two thirds. He’s not saturating the soil as he was before.
EQIP funds can also be obtained for nutrient management. Growers can receive funds on a per-acre basis towards the cost of taking soil samples and developing a nutrient management plan based on local land-grant university guidelines.
When Grams began monitoring soil nutrients, he found he’d been overapplying fertilizer. With the hand lines, he’d been applying so much water it washed the fertilizer down through the soil. With the microsprinklers, he can apply less water, which also means he can use less fertilizer. Where he was applying 400 to 600 pounds of calcium nitrate before, he’s applying only 200 pounds now. “That’s a substantial savings there, too,” he said.
His next EQIP-funded project is to build nesting structures for blue orchard bees (mason bees). These consist of four- by six-inch posts with holes drilled into them where the bees can nest. The posts are buried two feet in the ground. The native blue orchard bees forage for pollen in cooler weather than honeybees, and Grams thinks that if they become established in his orchard, he might only need one hive of honeybees per acre rather than the two he uses currently.
Projects are varied
EQIP funds are available to growers around the country for other types of projects, too, such as planting habitat for beneficial insects or installing boxes for raptors to improve rodent or bird control.
Amy Hendershot, resource conservationist for Chelan, Douglas, and Okanogan counties in Washington, said the premise of the program is to encourage farmers to conserve natural resources, which in many cases will translate directly into more money in the grower’s pocketbook.
Funds are available on a competitive basis. Each state is allocated a specific amount for the EQIP program, and stakeholders in each district of the state decide the priorities in terms of natural resource conservation and how the funds should be distributed. For example, in 2012, a total of $30,000 was allocated for tree fruits out of a total of $589,000 allocated by Washington State to Chelan, Douglas, and Okanogan counties.
Conventional growers have until about August to apply for funding for 2013. Funding for organic growers and those in transition to organic is allocated separately, so they don’t compete directly with conventional growers for funds. EQIP funding is not available for existing practices.
One aspect of the program that’s of particular interest to organic growers is irrigation water management, Hendershot said, because organic growers apply composts and other materials that slowly release nitrogen into the soil. Soil moisture monitoring can help ensure that water and nitrogen are not leaching beyond the crop.
The idea behind water management is to apply the right amount of water at the right time, but there’s a lot of flexibility in how growers can achieve that goal, Hendershot said. EQIP funds water management on a per-acre basis. Monitoring systems vary widely in how technical they are and how much they cost. Some are hard-wired to a data logger, which needs to be physically read every eight hours. Some use telemetry to transmit data to computers or smartphones. Scientists at Washington State University have just released an irrigation scheduler that operates on a smartphone.
Hendershot said that for some growers EQIP funds are the incentive they need to make changes they might have been thinking about but hesitated to make because of the economic risks. Growers of all sizes—from 1/4 acre to 5,000 acres—participate in the program. If a grower is not funded one year, he or she can reapply the following year. Some obtain funding year after year.
Anyone interested in applying should contact their local NRCS office. Staff can go out to the farms of prospective applicants to discuss their needs. For more information, check the Web site www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/main/national/programs/financial/eqip.