Final Report for EW05-00G

Elevating Examples of Excellence: A professional development and outreach model

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 2005: $5,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2006
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $5,310.00
Region: Western
State: Wisconsin
Principal Investigator:
Jeanne Merrill
Michael Fields Agricultural Institute
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Project Information

Abstract:

The project sought to educate agricultural professionals in innovative conservation practices and the federal programs that support them, specifically the Conservation Security Program (CSP), by highlighting CSP farms with exemplary conservation practices.

Project Objectives:
Goals and Objectives

Goals:
1) Educate Extension, conservation staff, farm leaders, farmers and other information providers about what constitute exemplary stewardship practices. This includes educating them about profitability and any new marketing opportunities that arise as a result of sustainable practices, as well as benefits for the environment;

2) Interest producers, especially mainstream farm group members, in applying to the CSP, its new list of “conservation enhancement practices”; also interesting them in applying to SARE;

3) Foster interagency collaboration on successful projects of mutual interest to both agencies, with the hope of identifying opportunities to work more closely on other projects in the future; and

4) Give voice to Tier 2 and Tier 3 producers who have used the CSP successfully about the role the program plays on their farms.

Measurable Objectives:
We will conduct 4 field days/farm tour events, mostly with CSP Tier 2 and 3 contract recipients. Three of them will be in Wisconsin, including a farm or farms in the Lower Chippewa River Watershed, the Crawfish River watershed, and the Kishwaukee River watershed, on the Illinois border. A fourth will be on the Illinois side of the Kishwaukee River watershed.

We will attract local and regional producers to attend the events, including mainstream producers.

With NRCS state staff, we will develop local planning teams to organize the events, made up of ourselves plus some combination of local Extension, conservation, and NRCS staff and local farm leaders.

We will develop multiple-use outreach materials that can be used in power point presentations, web site development and physical copies for media, consisting of a list of several CSP recipients in a watershed, including event hosts but also other producers, and including farm photos and brief descriptions as well as commentary from the farmers.

We will generate an average of at least 20 participants at each event, and no fewer than 15 at any event, including at least seven Extension, local conservation agents, farm leaders or other educators and at least 10 farmers, including more mainstream farmers.

Introduction:

The project recognized that the sustainable agriculture community has important under-used resources in the many exemplary producers and other practitioners who receive competitive grants and contracts from federal programs such as the Conservation Security Program (CSP). In the case of CSP, Tier 2 and Tier 3 contract recipients offer a pool of some of the best resource-conserving producers in every region. Who is better suited than they to share their experiences and innovations with agency staff, other farmers and ranchers, and people interested in knowing how the CSP program works?

The model builds on the mutual interest of the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Sustainable Agriculture Research Education (SARE) program, and grassroots NGOs working on sustainable agriculture and conservation to advance demonstrations on farms and ranches of the top recipients of the CSP program. NRCS staff, like NGO groups and others funded by SARE, regularly organize field days, pasture walks, scrubland-burns, and other demonstrations on agriculture’s working lands. The project is a natural extension of existing work; it simply targets the CSP pool of excellent producers for such outreach.

Although this kind of SARE-initiated outreach partnership might apply to a few other federal grants programs, such as the Value Added Producer Grant program, this pilot project sought to first explore the merits, kinks and quirks of this outreach model with CSP, with the thought of possibly expanding its scope in later proposals. To gain the greatest insight in a short time, the project coordinated and compared experiences with the National Center for Appropriate Technologies (NCAT), a non-governmental group (NGO) doing a similar project this summer in Montana, a western state with a very different geographic and agronomic profile; NCAT submitted a separate proposal for their work.

Education & Outreach Initiatives

Objective:
Description:

Methods

In April 2005, we conducted a meeting between Michael Fields Agricultural Institute (MFAI) staff and Wisconsin’s State Conservationist, Pat Leavenworth, and her top two state staff working on CSP. They were very supportive of this project. Wisconsin State NRCS staff contacted CSP farmers about the various roles that they might play, including hosting farm tours or field days, offering commentary about the CSP and their farm practices; helping plan events, etc. They identified host producers, who use exemplary practices, but are clearly cut from the mainstream of the farming population, rather than farmers who may appear ideologically or culturally difficult for mainstream farmers to relate to.
The Wisconsin NRCS staff passed along the names of willing producers to MFAI staff along with suggestions about who should be on the local planning teams, e.g., local NRCS and conservation agents, Extension agents, Land Conservation Development staff, as well as MFAI staff.
MFAI staff assembled the local planning teams, which met primarily via conference calls. Over the summer, MFAI visited 9 CSP farms that NRCS staff has suggested, for the purpose of getting digital photos of salient aspects of the operations, brief farm descriptions, comments about the CSP and its role on their farms. MFAI, working with NRCS, developed 5 CSP farm facthsheets and one power-point presentation, based on the above information from these farm visits.
Working with MFAI staff, the local planning teams developed and implemented a CSP farm tour in the lower Chippewa River watershed and field day in the Crawfish River watershed. It was decided by NRCS to focus on these two events, rather than attempt to do more CSP field days because of limited resources.

Both CSP events exceed our expectations in terms of participation. The farm tour brought together over 60 people, who toured four CSP, Tier III farms in Buffalo and Pepin counties in the lower Chippewa River watershed on September 22nd 2005. The tour went to three dairy farms and one sheep farm. At each tour stop the CSP farmers spoke of their conservation practices, which include grass waterways, diverse crop rotations, managed grazing, and nutrient and pest management practices to reduce inputs. State and federal agency staff attended, along with agribusiness consultants and farm group members. For many of them it was their first exposure to CSP and to the farmers enrolled in the program. Dan Weiss of Weiss Family Farms hosted a tour of his dairy farm and had this to say: “I hope CSP goes nationwide. It educated me on nutrient management. It’s a good program.”

The CSP farm field day was held in Dodge County, in the Crawfish Rive watershed, on September 28th on the farm of Charlie Hammer and Nancy Kavazanjian. Nancy spoke about the conservation practices on their farm: “We’ve always been conservation minded because the soil is so important to us. The soil is our strength, as our sign says. We know that you can’t abuse the soils and get good yields. That’s always been our goal to try and have the best soils we can.”

The turnout for the Dodge County field day far exceeded our expectations with 110 people in attendance, including over 50 farmers. The day included demonstrations on building soil organic matter, use of cover crops, and no-till practices.

The CSP farm field day and tour offered excellent opportunities to make the connections between the NRCS and SARE programs. At each of the CSP events we worked with Wisconsin SARE to distribute SARE materials to the farmers and others who attended.

In Illinois, we were less successful in our efforts to work with IL NRCS to develop CSP outreach and education events. We were able to interview 3 CSP farmers in Boone County because of our director’s work in the county. However, we were unable to organize CSP field days in Illinois because of a lack of responsiveness from Illinois state office of NRCS. We believe that other organizations, based in Illinois, will likely be more successful than an out-of-state organization, like the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute, in collaborating with the IL NRCS on CSP outreach.

Outreach and Publications

Five CSP farm factsheets:
ftp://ftp-fc.sc.egov.usda.gov/WI/csp/CSPtour/cspweiss.pdf
ftp://ftp-fc.sc.egov.usda.gov/WI/csp/CSPtour/cspmikelson.pdf
ftp://ftp-fc.sc.egov.usda.gov/WI/csp/CSPtour/cspsage.pdf
ftp://ftp-fc.sc.egov.usda.gov/WI/csp/CSPtour/cspprissel.pdf
ftp://ftp-fc.sc.egov.usda.gov/WI/csp/CSPtour/CSP05hkfarm.pdf

See above for description of the CSP farm tour and field day.

Outcomes and impacts:

The Conservation Security Program has undergone some significant changes since it was created in the 2002 Farm Bill. Most significantly, funding for the program has been dramatically curtailed. Originally intended to be a nationwide program, the USDA chose to roll out CSP on a watershed-by-watershed basis with 18 watersheds selected in the country during the pilot year of the program in 2004. The program was then expanded to 220 watersheds in 2005 and decreased again to 60 watersheds in 2006, due to funding cuts. As a consequence, once a watershed is selected for CSP, farmers only have one opportunity to apply to the program. If they do not apply for CSP or are denied a contract, with current funding scenarios, it could over 25 years before their watershed is selected again for the program. While we are cautiously optimistic that CSP funding may improve in the future (the Senate recently took action to leave CSP funding uncapped), current implementation of CSP impacted our ability to achieve some of the outcomes described in our original proposal, as described below.

We were able to reach a diverse audience of state and federal agency staff and private consultants, along with CSP farmers, with our outreach in Wisconsin. The feedback we received from the participants was that the events provided needed information about CSP and conservation practices, generally. But because CSP enrollment will not be available in the near future in the areas where we held the events, there is little reason for many of the agricultural professionals who participated to increase their assistance with farmers on CSP or to highlight CSP, generally, in their work – two original objectives of our project. For example, months after the CSP farm tour, we spoke to one Extension agent who helped organize the tour. He said that he does not currently work on CSP in his county because the program will not be available for farm sign up in the near future.

Because of these limitations on the program, we attempted to expand the reach of our work on CSP. For the Dodge County CSP field day, we worked with NRCS to invite farmers who live in the neighboring Rock River watershed, a potential CSP watershed. We wanted to use the field day to help prepare Rock River watershed farmers for CSP. However, few farmers who live in the watershed attended the event. We suspect that few came because NRCS was hesitant to advertise the event clearly stating that the Rock River watershed will be a future CSP watershed because of funding concerns that may prevent the Rock from being selected for CSP enrollment.

Despite the limitations of CSP funding and its consequences for program implementation, we have seen increased conservation among CSP-enrolled farmers and we believe that the CSP education work has been a benefit. For example, in 2004 the lower Chippewa River Watershed had 46 Tier III farms (requiring the highest level of conservation), 131 Tier II farms, and 30 Tier I farms. In 2005, CSP farmers had the opportunity to modify their contracts and move up to the higher Tiers of the program by adding new conservation practices to their farms. After the late fall contract modification period in 2005, there were 6 Tier I farms, 100 Tier II farms and 101 Tier III farms – representing a significant shift to the high tiers of the program. After the 2006, 76 percent of Dodge County CSP farmers modified their contracts by moving up a tier or adding conservation practices to their existing Tier III contracts, as compared to 65 percent of all CSP enrolled farmers in Wisconsin who modified their contracts and less than 50 percent of the CSP enrolled farmers nationwide who modified their contracts.

We believe that our education efforts in the Lower Chippewa River watershed and Dodge County (Crawfish River watershed) helped farmers to understand the opportunities to advance to the higher tiers of CSP and work with NRCS staff to add conservation practices to their farms.

Finally, is important to note that the project garnered state and local media attention for CSP and the farmers enrolled in the program. The leading farm papers, The Country Today, Agri-View and the Wisconsin State Farmer ran stories with photos from the farm tour and field day. The Country Today did two stories, one for each event. We also had 5 local print stories. Furthermore, MFAI is a member of the Wisconsin Public News Service, which works with member nonprofits to place radio stories. Using their service we were able to get CSP stories placed on 23 radio stations. Overall, the media coverage of the two events surpassed our original project goals.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

The project developed a model of collaboration among NRCS, Extension, SARE, local conservation departments and NGOs on CSP outreach and education. We have developed CSP factsheets and powerpoint presentation on CSP and we plan to build on this work with NRCS by conducting CSP workshops at farmer and conservationist meetings this winter. Additionally, in August of this year, we used the CSP powerpoint presentation to present this project at the SARE conference in Oconomowoc.

It is important to note that the project has garnered state and local media attention for CSP and the farmers enrolled in the program. The leading farm papers, The Country Today, Agri-View and the Wisconsin State Farmer ran stories with photos from the farm tour and field day. The Country Today did two stories, one for each event. We also had 5 local print stories. Furthermore, MFAI is a member of the Wisconsin Public News Service, which works with member nonprofits to place radio stories. Using their service we were able to get CSP stories placed on 23 radio stations. Overall, the media coverage of the two events surpassed our original project goals.

Recommendations:

Potential Contributions

CSP is a new and complex federal program. The project has increased understanding of CSP among agricultural professionals and producers and it has highlighted exemplary conservation practices. It was intended as a pilot project to assess whether or not it would be possible to develop a successful collaboration with NRCS on CSP outreach and education. While there were unanticipated challenges to the project, overall, the collaboration has proved successful and CSP holds the potential to be an exemplary conservation program.

Future Recommendations

Success of this project in Wisconsin depended, in part, on NRCS buy-in at the beginning of the project. Our lack of relationship with NRCS in Illinois proved to be a significant barrier to meeting our original goals for the project’s work in Illinois. We recommend that organizations interested in working on CSP in their states work with NRCS early on to develop trust and mutual interest in the project.

This model of outreach is also limited by CSP funding and current implementation by watershed. The future success of CSP as a means to reward the best conservation farmers and motivate the rest will depend on increased funding and nationwide implementation of the program.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.