Questions a Farmer Can't Answer
Updated: Jun 30, 2020
Stacy Prassas arrived at the farm in a white Ford F-150 pickup, boots on her feet, baseball cap on her head and giant earrings hanging down to her shoulders. A woman in her early 40s raised with horses and dairy cattle, Stacy has worked for the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), at the US Department of Agriculture, for 17 years now. She ambled out confidently with the air of a woman who knows her job and we did the requisite Iowa chit chat about the weather while standing gathered around the back of the truck. John's dad Leroy came out and asked why Stacy was there (a woman? from the USDA??). Then the three of us headed out to show Stacy problem pasture in the four-wheeler.
The issue at hand was this: Leroy kept cows in the same pasture for several months every winter/spring to calve. Now, 30 years into the practice, the place is a muddy, manure filled bog in the spring, a no-cows-land where one of our calves almost died back in March when he got stuck in the crook of a tree root in armpit deep mud. (Video below is of the same calf after we saved him.)
Stacy looked at the pockmarked ground, destroyed by 100s of hooves stomping across it year after year. “The area is too compacted,” she told us, explaining as she knelt down and picked up a piece of “dirt” (more like a glob of cow shit) to show us that it stuck together like a slab of clay. The compaction led to standing water, and thus the muddy morass that the cows had churned it into.
After talking about what to do with the area, John and I decided to seed it with 2 annuals - Italian rye and field radishes - that would break up the dense organic matter with deep roots. Next year, or the year after, we can seed it with grasses and forbs, and bring the cows back for a day at a time to graze. We also hope to stockpile grasses for cattle to eat during the winter, a practice that means that we will keep moving them around the farm to eat the instead of have them stand in the same pasture for months eating hay.
Yet even more than the advice we gleaned from Stacy was the relief I felt that she exists. Finally we found someone from the local government office who is on the same page, who means the same things when they talk about “regenerative agriculture,” or “rotational grazing” (much more than just planting cover crops).
It has been a tough road with the USDA. We have been told repeatedly that there are no organic or sustainability programs “per se.” And yet there are – the Farm Service Agency (FSA, also a USDA office) offers an organic cost share to make the certification more affordable, for example. And many, many NRCS programs directly address environmental sustainability and give farms money to put the practices into action.
Back in March, just before Corona hit and after another non-eventful visit to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) offices where again, no one knew anything about any of the programs we were interested in, John and I started taking matters into our own hands.
I contacted the Iowa Organic Association and they sent me info on programs I should have access to via our local FSA office but did not because no one there knew about them. Luckily, a new person had also just been hired at our local NRCS who had a little more interest in our plight than the previous soon-to-retire agent. After an email chain that went on for weeks (often because John and I asked the same questions in different emails), the new agent referred us on to a forage specialist to help us learn more about how the NRCS could help. That was Stacy.
With Stacy’s help, we are now applying for the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) with the NRCS, a multiyear program in which we pick from a list of environmental improvements we want to make on the farm and get help (money and expertise) to make them happen. Which is great, except that we don't know what we are doing. John and I sat on our new porch for more than two hours on Wednesday going through a few of the possible “enhancements” to learn more about what each was, what we would be required to do, and for how long we could be in the program. It took two computers working in tandem.
Really, it was akin to picking out movies at a movie festival - they all sound good, but it is really hard to know what exactly you are getting yourself into. Mostly we just ended up with a bunch of questions. How many trees have to come down in order to create the proper number of standing dead trees for bat habitat according to the NRCS code? How many trees are cut in order to get a “significant amount of sunlight” to the forest floor for a “forest improvement”? Can we graze cows where we “plant for high carbon sequestion rate”? And so on…
These are not questions a farmer can answer on their own, and it doesn’t seem right to have to choose a program we could be stuck in for the next five years based on the limited information we have. But the NRCS staff is also so overworked they don’t have the time to hold our hand through the process.
I think John and I will apply for the "E612B: Planting for high carbon sequestration rate" which involves planting trees in existing forest and in pasture. We could also "reduce forest stand density to create open stand structure," or plant trees for silvopasture. All of which sound suspiciously similar, but pay varying amounts.
But in the end no matter what we sign up for, we will plant more trees. Which is a great thing.