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USDA unveils new conservation innovation grants totaling $15.7 million

DEPUTY AGRICULTURE Secretary Krysta Harden listens as Tunica County Miss farmer Patrick Johnson describes conservation efforts on his farm USDA announced a new series of Conservation Innovation Grants that included projects in Mississippi
<p>DEPUTY AGRICULTURE Secretary Krysta Harden listens as Tunica County, Miss., farmer Patrick Johnson describes conservation efforts on his farm. USDA announced a new series of Conservation Innovation Grants that included projects in Mississippi.</p>
&quot;These grants promote creativity and problem-solving efforts that benefit farmers and ranchers and protect our natural resources,&quot; Vilsack said. &quot;They&#39;re critical in sparking new ideas and techniques for conservation on America&#39;s private lands and improving the environment.&quot;

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced that 47 organizations will receive a total of $15.7 million in Conservation Innovation Grants aimed accelerating new ways to improve conservation efforts on private lands.

The funds, which are made possible through the Agriculture Act of 2014 (2014 farm bill), are going to a variety of organizations, not all of which are usually identified with production agriculture. One of those is the Holmes County Food Hub in Durant, Miss.

"These grants promote creativity and problem-solving efforts that benefit farmers and ranchers and protect our natural resources," Vilsack said. "They're critical in sparking new ideas and techniques for conservation on America's private lands and improving the environment."

The grants are funded through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. Grantees must work with producers and forestland owners to develop and demonstrate the new technologies and approaches. At least 50 percent of the total cost of CIG projects must come from non-federal matching funds, including cash and in-kind contributions provided by the grant recipient.

Vilsack made the announcement while visiting an Illinois corn and soybean farm owned by David and Tamara Erickson and their sons, Nicholas and Bradley. The Ericksons have a five-year Conservation Stewardship Program contract with USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service and have also received technical assistance from NRCS.

“This program allows farmers to work voluntarily with others to improve agriculture production while making changes that improve soil health and water quality,” said Sen. Thad Cochran, ranking Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee from Mississippi.

“I am pleased that projects with a focus on adopting innovative practices that best fit Mississippi’s needs are receiving this support from the USDA,” he said, noting the CIG grants will total more than $1 million for Mississippi.

For Mississippi, the Holmes County Food Hub in Durant was awarded a $640,775 grant to support a project titled “Introducing Innovative Conservation Technologies to Assist Socially Disadvantaged Farmers in West and Central Mississippi.”

The goal of this project is to demonstrate to historically underserved farm operations the agricultural sustainability and profitability benefits of adopting conservation technologies, such as plasticulture and subsurface irrigation.

A $438,750 grant has also been approved for the Stoneville-based Delta F.A.R.M. (BF Smith Foundation) for a project titled “Mississippi’s Soil Health Initiative: Fostering Awareness, Belief and Understanding through Local Experience and Evaluation.”

In an effort to promote wider use and acceptance of innovative practices, the Delta F.A.R.M. project will demonstrate and field test soil health systems on 12 farms and 2,400 acres. It will compare the use of traditional and innovative demonstrated soil health systems to evaluate soil and water quality.

A separate $232,232 grant to Louisiana State University for soil health and pasture ecosystem improvement would also have an impact on Mississippi, according to Sen. Cochran. This project seeks to demonstrate the benefits that multiple forage species forage have on grazing pastures.

The NRCS determines CIG awards on a competitive basis to applicants that propose new or improved conservation practices. It is one of several conservation projects involving working agriculture lands that were reformed in the 2014 farm bill to improve cost-effectiveness and transparency.

The University of Missouri will receive almost $368,000 to work on an energy recovery system that field tests show could reduce energy consumption in poultry houses by 40 percent to50 percent. Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University will receive almost $382,000 to continue to develop procedures to improve soil health and increase the acreage being managed with conservation tillage practices. And, In Arizona, the Navajo Nation will receive over $28,000 for mule deer conservation efforts, and the First Nations Development Institute will receive almost $69,000 to develop a conservation planning process, led by Navajo livestock producers on the Navajo Reservation.

A full list of recipients is available here:

Soil health is the foundation and future of sustainable agriculture, enabling producers to fare better against drought and other climatic extremes while increasing production. They have greater water holding capacity, increase water infiltration, reduce soil erosion, decrease soil compaction, improve crop productivity, and improve our natural resource condition.

NRCS has offered this grant program since 2004, investing in ways to demonstrate and transfer efficient and environmentally friendly farming and ranching. In the past years, the grants have helped develop trading markets for water quality and have shown how farmers and ranchers may use fertilizer, water and energy more efficiently. Since 2009 through this year's funding, 323 projects were or are slated to be awarded for a total $126 million investment in novel conservation.

To enhance the value and adoption of previous CIG results, a new search tool is available on the website for past awarded projects.

For more on this grant program, visit USDA's Conservation Innovation Grants webpage.

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