USDA promotes ag innovation with new fuunds

• Alexandria LA

U.S. Department of Agriculture will invest $26.6 million in 45 new, national projects to spur agricultural innovation in rural and urban communities through its Conservation Innovation Grants (CIG) in fiscal year 2016, said Kevin Norton, State Conservationist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in Louisiana. Nearly 25 percent of the funding will be used for projects to ensure historically underserved, military veteran, and new and beginning farmers, ranchers and forest landowners have equal access to USDA programs and services.

Nationally, the funding will leverage more than $32.5 million in matching funds from cash and in-kind sources from the grantees for a total of $59.1 million, more than doubling the federal investment. The 2016 projects focus on water quality, conservation finance and assistance to existing and potential historically underserved USDA customers. CIG, administered by NRCS, is funded through the popular Environmental Quality Incentives Program.

“This year’s national CIG competition resulted in diverse projects from established focus areas such as water quality to cutting-edge areas such as conservation finance,” Norton said. “It is essential that USDA explore new technologies and approaches that will offer producers new ways to protect their natural resources as they seek out new revenue streams to keep their operations viable.”

In 2016, NRCS added 13 new conservation finance awards. These new projects support the design and implementation of conservation finance approaches to attract private capital to working lands conservation. The selected projects propose innovative conservation finance approaches that address diverse natural resource topics such as pollinators; sage-grouse conservation; forest, carbon and corporate chain sustainability; and organic farming. USDA added conservation finance as a separate focus area for the first time in 2015.

Below are highlights of several new projects nationwide from the three focus areas this fiscal year.

The Nature Conservancy, ($321,072) proposes to develop impact investment blueprints for Gulf of Mexico restoration that outline how public funding can be used to attract private impact investment funds to conservation, greatly expanding the impact of various Deepwater Horizon settlement funds. The blueprints will be combined with a pipeline of specific deal opportunities to provide place-based examples of how private investment can leverage settlement funds.

(Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida).

Louisiana State University Agricultural Center, ($992,012) proposes to develop and improve fallow season cover crop (winter and summer) strategies as a component of overall conservation programs for soybean, field corn, cotton and sugarcane. The primary goal is to increase the adoption of soil health management practices by demonstrating the effectiveness and efficiency of cover crops to reduce sediment loss and N and P contaminants at the farm and watershed scale for agricultural production systems in the state of Louisiana and the Mid-South region. (Louisiana) NRCS received 170 applications after its Announcement of Program Funding closed on May 10, 2016. The more than $100 million requested for proposed national projects far exceeded the initial funding level of $20 million. USDA selected 45 national projects to fund at $26.6 million, surpassing its initial $20 million goal to add more deserving projects.

The maximum grant is $2 million per project and the length of time for project completion is three years. The CIG projects are designed to engage EQIP-eligible producers in on-the-ground conservation activities such as demonstrations that will result in new technologies and approaches that can benefit similar producers regionally or nationally.

CIGs stimulate the development and adoption of innovative conservation approaches and technologies while leveraging federal investment in environmental enhancement and protection in conjunction with agricultural production. CIG awards competitive grants to local and state units of governments, institutes of higher learning, non-governmental organizations, American Indian tribes and individuals. CIG enables USDA to work with other public and private entities to accelerate transfer and adoption of promising technologies and approaches to address some of the nation’s most pressing natural resource concerns.

In addition to national CIGs, NRCS in Louisiana awarded one new state CIG. The focus areas for this year’s projects could range from energy, environmental health of pastureland or rangeland, productivity and environmental health of forestland, soil quality, priority landscapes, nutrient management, sustainable and organic agriculture, specialty crops, pollinator habitat to StrikeForce Initiatives. Louisiana received four state CIG applications after the state specific Announcement of Program Funding closed on June 3, 2016. A technical review panel made eligibility determinations and ranked all eligible applications. One application was recommended to the State Conservationist to award. Louisiana State University Agricultural Center’s ($74,979.00) application to “reduce soil runoff and improve soil quality and organic matter in lands devoted to sugarcane production with the use of cover crops with or without grazing” was the state CIG proposal selected this year.

CIG has an impressive track record of fostering innovative conservation tools and strategies.

With funding from this announcement, USDA has invested $173 million to fund 414 national CIG projects since 2009. For instance, CIGs have served as a catalyst to create new conservation practice standards and major revisions of other critical conservation practice standards.

For more information about CIGs in Louisiana, please visit the NRCS CIG webpage.