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Minutes of October 2012 Meeting

Minutes of October 2012 Montana State Technical Advisory Committee Meeting

Introductions

Joyce opened the meeting by welcoming everyone and thanking them for coming. She asked everyone to introduce themselves and state what entity they were representing. Items discussed by Joyce:

  1. On November 18 and 19, 2012, there will be a PBS documentary about the “Dust Bowl” which was developed by Ken Burns. It will be broadcast from 8-10 p.m. eastern on both nights. Check your local TV listings to be sure the time is not different.
  2. Status of the Farm Bill: The Senate has passed a new farm bill. The House Ag Committee has passed on as well. The House did not take any further action. Everyone is hopeful that action will be taken after the November elections.
  3. Field Office of the Future: The full report is available upon request. Contact Jerry Schaefer if you want a copy. The main results for Montana are:
    1. Create Farm Bill specialists (about 5 people) to handle the administrative functions that field staff is currently performing. This group of people will be located together with Bozeman; the tentative location.
    2. Field Office staff will be able to spend more time in the field assisting producers rather than spending time in the office doing administrative functions.
    3. No field offices will be closed in Montana since we are spread out already and have more miles to travel to assist producers than neighboring states.
    4. Page 5 of the document lists opportunities for improvement.
  4. SPCC (Spill Prevention, Control and Countermeasures) Producers in Montana requested NRCS provide assistance meeting the requirements for fuel spill prevention. We received over 300 applications and were able to fund 71 high priority applications. These were for facilities that had more than 10,000 gallons of fuel storage on-farm and close to a stream. The dollars committed to this special initiative were between $1.2 - $1.3 million. To date only seven of these contracts have been completed. The Grain Growers will ask their members if NRCS should offer this assistance this year during their statewide producer feedback sessions.

During the Introductions three people provided handouts and announcements for the group.

  1. NCAT (National Center for Appropriate Technology) handed out a case study titled “No-Till Case Study, Brown’s Ranch: Improving Soil Health Improves the Bottom Line” and “Becoming a Technical Service Provider for NRCS: An Introduction. Copies of the first can be obtained at www.attra.ncat.org and the second from richm@ncat.org.
  2. NASS (National Agricultural Statistics Service) provided a handout discussing the upcoming 2012 Census of Agriculture. Participants at the meeting are encouraged to fill out the questionnaire if they are farmers or if not to encourage farmers they work with to fill out the questionnaire. The information is used to benefit agriculture in Montana through research and additional funding for agriculture programs.
  3. Mark Ockey, Montana Department of Environmental Quality, announced an upcoming Wetland Council meeting in Helena on November 15, 2012 in Helena. A representative from the North Dakota Nature Conservancy will make a presentation. There will also be discussion on the direction to take to update a wetland program.

Sub-Committee Reports

  1. Forestry Subcommittee: Rob Ethridge reported on the meeting held on September 27, 2012.

Topics discussed:

  1. a. The group working on wildfire rehabilitation for fire recovery came together quickly to offer assistance to Montana people impacted by the various fires across the state. Coordination between the various agencies went well. This happened even though Montana hadn’t had an active fire season for three years. Immediately after the Ash Creek fire the parties came together quickly to help assist and coordinate.
  2. b. The group was concerned about the way “Fuel Break” is funded under EQIP. With the short time frame burning is allowed in any given year it could be two years between when the thinning is completed and slash burning takes place. Producers may have to pay the person doing the thinning and wait two years until they can do the slash burning before they are paid.
  1. Water Activities Work Group: Mark Ockey reported that this group will serve as the Water Subcommittee of the State Technical Advisory Committee (STAC). It is composed of many of the same members. The Water Activities Work Group is part of the Montana Watershed Coordination Council which is made up of 30-40 watershed groups around the state. They are also involved the 319 program. This group will assist NRCS with identifying priority watersheds for the NRCS National Water Quality Imitative.

CRP

Amy provided a brief overview of the Signup 43, the signup that occurred this last summer. The increase in wheat prices is one reason there has been a significant decrease in acres offered in CRP.

  1. A large percentage of the signups were for CR1-10 point offers which requires one introduced species without noxious weeds present.
  2. Montana had one of the lowest acceptance rates in the nation for CRP offers, with under 60% of the CRP offers accepted. (One of the five lowest – most states had acceptance rates in the high 80-95% range.)
  3. The vast majority of accepted CRP offers were for CP1 introduced grass species practices – 1039 out of 1193 offers (189,144 out of 230,536 acres). There were 217 offers that were accepted for CP2 native species practices (39,264 acres).
  4. Because of the competitive bid process, very few CP1-10 point offers were accepted. There would have to be some other resource concern – such as high erodibility of the land – for these offers to be accepted.
  5. Looking at the rejected offers from the three counties with the most CRP offers:
    1. 99.7 percent of the rejected acres were offered as an introduced species practice
    2. 92 percent of the rejected acres were offered as CP1-10 point practice
    3. Had the CP1-10 point offered acres instead been bid under the CP1-40 point practice, over 53% of the acres would have achieved the necessary Environmental Benefits Index (EBI) score and would have been accepted into CRP.

FSA believes that not counting crested wheatgrass and smooth brome as acceptable species for the CP1-40 point practice has had a direct impact on the CRP practices bid, and as a result, the number of accepted CRP offers in Montana. In addition, we are continuing to lose accepted CRP acreage. Polling some of our larger CRP counties, about five percent of the total accepted CRP Signup 42 offers have now been withdrawn because of the renovation required due to crested wheatgrass and smooth brome not counting as acceptable species for the CP1-40 point practices.

The wildlife subcommittee of the STAC met to discuss adding crested wheatgrass and smooth brome as acceptable species under the CP1 practices. The subcommittee felt it is better to have land under permanent cover than have it cropped from a wildlife point of view.

Additional discussion follows:

Bruce Nelson, FSA State Director, added the following comments:

  1. Renovating crested wheatgrass was based on the premise that you could kill it. Research has shown that the only way you can achieve this is to crop it.
  2. CRP rental rates have not changed over time but inflation has reduced the value of the payment. The rental rate would have to be $92 per acre today to have the same value. There is no chance of increasing the rental rate given our current national budget deficit. This has been the case as cash rental rates have increased to close to the same value as the CRP rental rate.
  3. A national review of the offers that were rejected this year was because the offers did not provide more conservation benefits. They needed to diversify the number of tame species or plant native species.

Discussion (C=Comment, Q=Question and A=Answer):

C: This discussion is based on the premise that reduction of CRP is bad, maybe less acres is not bad.

Q: What is the focus of CRP – wildlife or erodibility? What is the cost of renovation of CRP stands? (See comment after this answer)

A: We have seen the CRP focus shift to more continuous signups. They target specific resource concerns such as the recent Highly Erodible Land (HEL) signup. Wildlife has been the emphasis but we need to consider HEL as well.

C: The cost to renovate:

  1. Cut the old stand is $15.00 per acre
  2. Spray two times
  3. Seed cost is $51 per acre due to the high cost of seed as a result of this year’s fires. What happens at the end of 10 years? He feels like it will be back to crested wheatgrass.

C: One producer in Hill County had the Audubon Society count 21 different bird species on crested wheat grass fields.

C: A case of a farm in Liberty County of a family that wants to keep the land in CRP. The high cost to renovate with crested wheatgrass coming back is a concern. If they sell the land it will be farmed. If there was a reasonable rental rate and no renovations costs it would stay in CRP.

C: Many acres are reclaimed saline seep. If these acres are farmed the saline seep will return. If we did not have to renovate the whole thing, maybe just 25 percent and enhance them for pollinators both sides would gain.

A: We now have a 40 percent limit on crested wheat grass before we require renovation. If crested wheat grass was counted as an acceptable species the producer would have to renovate fewer acres.

C: We should also consider the social aspect. It is hard to get grass species established. There are a lot of weeds for the first couple weeds. Neighbors don’t like the weed problems.

Q: What is the goal of CRP in Montana? If the farm is sold and it is farmed, then the price of wheat falls, then what?

A: National FSA recognizes that not all existing land should be in CRP (the land is good to farm). Ducks Unlimited has the position that it is better to have permanent vegetation than have it in cropland. They are trying to partner with other entities to get more cost share available for farmers.

Q: How has the beginning farmers program worked with CRP (TIP) coming out?

A: There is an incentive for leaving it in for two more years if it is sold or leased to a beginning or historically underserved producer.

Q: What land that is in CRP is farmable and how do you get it to new farmers? Renovation results in weed issues and potential for drought. The hassle is too much for reseeding so the TIP program was a good solution.

C: We have to consider the social side of CRP. When you renovate CRP you end up with weeds at the beginning. Neighbors get mad when the weeds end up on their fences. I like the TIP program.

C: You have to look at the goal. CRP is now in big blocks. Look at targeted use of CRP. Would like less CRP and put land into production. Target funds to working farms.

Q: Are more points added to other areas, like steep slopes or riparian areas?

A: Amy led a discussion on Environmental Benefit Index factors that are used to rank applications. Items include cost, water quality zones, air quality zones, erodibility, etc..

C: Can you get a fact sheet out to people so they can see how it works?

A: Yes we can do that.

C: The state FSA committee is in favor of revisiting the crested wheat grass issue.

Certainty on Sage-Grouse

The “working lands for wildlife” is a partnership between NRCS and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). Through this partnership, landowners can receive technical and financial assistance by volunteering to restore habitat for species on their land. In Montana this includes the greater sage-grouse. Landowners who participate in the program have regulatory predictability under the Endangered Species Act which exempts them from “incidental” of the listed species that was inadvertently caused by the implementation of conservation practices. This incidental take applies for conservation practices implemented for as many as 30 years.

Q: What is the enforcement of plan once it is implemented?

A: NRCS field staff will do annual status reviews during the life of the contract. Landowners should really do it for getting conservation on the ground. Implementing the conservation practices will help drought-proof a ranch and improve the quality of the grazing land. Taking care of the grazing land will also take care of the sage grouse.

C: For the Montana Stockgrowers, certainty is a big deal. They ask the question “Do I want sage grouse on my land?” People like wildlife and the opportunity to enhance wildlife. If they make the choice about wanting sage grouse they need this certainty.

Q: What is the likelihood of the sage grouse being listed under the ESA?

A: I don’t know. There has been a huge investment in improving wildlife habitat to prevent it being listed. We need to be sure that the grazing plans that benefit sage grouse continue after the contract expires.

Q: Do this certainty only apply in the sage-grouse targeted areas?

A: No.

Sage-Grouse Accomplishments

Since the start of the Sage Grouse Initiative the following results are summarized:

  1. Long-term conservation easements on 47,151 acres
  2. EQIP has provided 27 contracts on 358,627 acres within 6 of the 13 core areas
  3. NRCS partnered with the Intermountain Joint Venture and 35 other conservation partners to hire 24 range conservationists throughout the west to accelerate technical assistance. Three of them are located in Montana.
  4. More details on the 11 state sage-grouse initiative can be found at www.nrcs.usda.gov

Soil Health Demonstration

Pat did an infiltration and soil slate test showing two types of soil. One of the soils was from a field that was conventional tillage and the other was in permanent vegetation. The conventional tillage sample had little infiltration and a lot of runoff. The soil also dissolved in the water.

C: This is exactly what I see on my farm. I do no till and my neighbor does conventional till. Water is always running off his fields causing gully erosion. I have no gully erosion on my farm after receiving a 3 inch rainfall.

Q: What is the influence of night crawlers?

A: Earthworms digest and chew up the carbon residue and it makes nutrients more available to plants. Earthworms also do a great job of improving soil structure by increasing the number of macro-pores which improve water infiltration and water holding capacity.

C: I saw a demonstration in Ohio on the effect of worm holes. Liquid manure went into the ground three feet.

2012 Fire Summary

Over one million acres of land burned in Montana during the 2012 fire season. There were two special initiatives under EQIP for fire recovery for the 2012 program year. The first covered deferred grazing for one year as well as seeding areas in the watershed that had burned hot. There were 27 contracts signed on 87,000 acres for a total of a little less than $1 million dollars. The second covered fuel breaks. There were 29 contracts signed on 7,300 acres for a cost of $550,000.

There are $1 million dollars in requests under EQIP for fiscal year 2013 for fires that occurred later in the year. There is only one area eligible in Ravalli county under the Emergency Watershed Program (EWP).

Q: Were fuel breaks all the same?

A: They are all the same which is removing trees and brush around homes to reduce fuels.

C: This helps to manage the risk, it does not remove it.

Programs Update

2012 program year breakdown:

In Fiscal Year 2012 NRCS obligated $18.4 million through 571 contracts with EQIP. There were 10 contracts obligated through WHIP for about $250,000. CSP had 186 new contracts totaling $5.3 million. Prior year CSP contracts made payments of $45 million through 1,650 existing contracts.

Q: How does this past year of CSP compare in signups to the previous three?

A: We had a floor on the points for each contract because we have a cap on the number of acres we can accept in Montana. We had two applications for every one accepted.

Q: Other states have cutoff states for a ranking period that are later than Montana’s. Iowa has a cutoff date as late as November 4. They have 3 or 4 cutoff dates.

C: I think the June 1 cutoff date is too early.

A: We have batching periods. National has later cutoff dates. We need time to plan with producers.

C: Other states have cutoff dates that are later than Montana’s.

C: National has provided national organic general information.

A: General information has been provided but nothing specific for how the program will run this year.

Q: What is the number of contracts accepted versus applications?

A: Under EQIP general only 25 percent of the applicants get contracts. Under the High Tunnel Special Initiative only 10 percent of the applicants get contracts.

Q: When is the contract signed?

A: The goal is to have all contracts signed by April 15 of each year so producers can get their conservation work done in the summer.

C: For practices that are in the forest the time to do thinning is in the summer before the fire season starts. If someone gets a contract they have to wait until the following summer to do the work. It would be better if an application was turned in January and be able to thin before the summer fire season.

C: On Montana state-owned land where the planning is done up front. When money is available they can start doing implementation.

C: Under the “Field Office of the Future” NRCS may be able to do more planning up front ahead of time so producers are ready for a contract.

C: Clarify the dates for organic. The local field offices don’t know that.

A: With a continuous sign up we should never turn somebody back from signing up. The dates for organic are set by the national office.

Local work groups in each county are asked to identify what the local issues are. This is important when NRCS tries to move more funds to the local level to address the local issues. In 2012 the local work groups were asked to identify their top two priorities. For the 2013 program year they were asked to identify one priority since we have fewer funds available.

Q: If an application is not a high priority for funding what happens to the application?

A: If it is not planned to the resource management system (RMS) level it is possible that it will not be funded.

Recommendation: There should be more effort to notify local people of when the local work groups are meeting. There should be a success story written to engage local people. It is only to the benefit of NRCS in the long run.

A: NRCS gives the local work groups a four-month window to meet and provide us with results of their meeting. The priorities can change over time depending on what the issues the local people want to address.

Q: What is the status on WRP?

A: GRP and WRP expired the end of September and right now NRCS is not accepting any new applications. We are working on restoration activities in our backlog. We have restoration dollars but no easement dollars.

2011 Flood Recovery Summary

NRCS administered the Emergency Watershed Protection (EWP) Program to assist with the 2011 flood recovery effort. NRCS provided $4 million in cost-share and $1 million in technical assistance (engineering and ecological science). The estimated near-term project benefits were $25 million in protected property (6.5 to 1 benefit/cost ratio).

Work was completed on 70 damaged sites in 23 counties and 3 reservations. All flood projects were installed within 11 months of the flood damage. The first project was contracted on June 16, 2011 and the last project was completed on May 1, 2012.

A final EWP program report is available upon request.

Q: There were 13,000 feet of stream bank impacted. How much of this was rip-rapped?

A: Approximately 75%.

AFO/CAFO Policy Adoption

NRCS has developed a new policy in providing technical and financial assistance on Animal Feeding Operations (AFO/CAFOs). This policy was developed in consultation with the DEQ after the EPA issued a revision to the CAFO final rule in 2012. A copy of the NRCS AFO/CAFO policy is available upon request. If there are any questions please contact Steve at (406) 587-6828 or steve.becker@mt.usda.gov.

MCA 75-5-802 prevents the State CAFO regulations from being more restrictive than the Federal regulations. The EPA’s 2012 CAFO final rule states that producers who discharge wastewater and feedlot runoff must have an MPDES General or Individual Permit. In contrast, the 2008 CAFO final rule stated that producers who “proposed to discharge” needed a permit. The ‘proposal to discharge’ injected a high level of uncertainty and speculation into the decision-making process. This uncertainty made it difficult for NRCS to market waste storage and treatment alternatives that can run from $10,000 to $450,000.

The NRCS would like to market waste storage and treatment alternatives on the merits of conservation and production and financing, versus regulatory compliance. Waste storage and treatment alternatives through the NRCS EQIP Program can improve the production/farmability/ nutrient value of feedlots; AND place producers in a good position to acquire an MPDES permit and meet the permit provisions if they need one. MPDES permits can reduce corporate liability, facilitate loans/financing, and increase the leasibility and appraised value of feedlots.

Q: How many Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) are in Montana?

A: There are approximately 125 MPDES General Permits issued to CAFOs by the DEQ. Best guess: there are about 650 un-permitted CAFOs in Montana.

Q: Can the language be changed to provide cost-share for an AFO and can they get cost-share without a permit? He would prefer the language to refer to AFO only since CAFOs are more expensive. The July rule will allow our people to market conservation on its own merit rather than the regulatory requirement.

A: There are a lot more ways to market this than the regulatory requirement.

Closing

Joyce closed the meeting by announcing the next meeting will be by conference call and will be around the first of February.