The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has announced a new initiative to improve soil health on Massachusetts vegetable and livestock farms through the pre-harvest aerial seeding of cover crops that will protect the soil during the winter.

Conservation practices such as cover crop, conservation crop rotation and no-till improve a soil’s organic matter content, water holding capacity, and resilience to climate change.

In spite of the positive effects of these practices, many crop and livestock farmers find it difficult to harvest the main season crop and have enough growing degree days left in the season to establish a cover crop.
Aerial cover crop seeding approximately four weeks prior to corn harvest should allow ample time for cover crop establishment.

Funding for the practice is available through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), which provides financial and technical assistance to agricultural producers and forest land owners to address natural resource concerns and deliver environmental benefits such as improved water and air quality, conserved ground and surface water, reduced soil erosion and sedimentation or improved or created wildlife habitat. Farmers who apply for this special funding will be competing only among other farmers seeking to improve soil health.

May 15 is the next EQIP cut-off date. All eligible and complete EQIP applications — for any conservation practice available under EQIP — received by that date will be evaluated and ranked for available funding. Applications – for the aerial cover crop initiative and all other eligible conservation practices – are accepted on a continuous basis and considered for funding in set ranking periods.

If you’re a farmer or forest land owner and are interested in EQIP, you’re encouraged to call or stop by your local NRCS field office. A planner will discuss with you your vision for your land, the conservation planning process, and how to apply for financial assistance.

USDA Service Center locations are listed on the website or in the phone book under Federal Government, U.S. Department of Agriculture. General program information is available on the NRCS Massachusetts website.

“If you operate a farm or manage forest land and want to make improvements to your land, we can help, but don’t wait for the next program cut-off date to be announced,” said Christine Clarke, State Conservationist for NRCS in Massachusetts. “Folks should be aware that the entire process can take six to 12 months from initial request to implementation of their project. So, ask us for assistance as soon as you’ve identified a natural resource concern on your land.”

Passage of the 2014 Farm Bill resulted in changes to EQIP, some of which include folding the former Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program (WHIP) into EQIP; increasing the six-year payment limitation to $450,000; and adding Veterans to the list of farmers eligible for increased payment rates and advanced payments.