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CIG Success Spotlight

Conservation Innovations - Success Spotlight

Two men standing in a crop field, looking at a tablet.

Investing in Water Management Innovation

Through CIG funding for multiple projects over 10 years, the ARS National Peanut Research Laboratory, Flint River Conservation District, the Georgia Soil and Water Conservation Commission and the University of Georgia worked to develop and test an irrigation water management tool for farmers, called Irrigator Pro. Read more.


 

CEAPWatersheds_forACPFWatershed Restoration

The Agriculture Conservation Planning Framework (ACPF) was initially developed through a 2011 Conservation Innovation Grant award and has grown into a powerful tool used for the protection and restoration of watersheds. The ACPF brings big data, technology, producers, and conservation planners together to improve water quality. Read more.

 

Cover Crop Innovations

Cover crops have the potential to provide multiple benefits in a cropping system. They prevent erosion, improve soil health, supply nutrients, suppress weeds, improve the availability of soil water, and break pest cycles along with other benefits. Through the CIG program, NRCS has funded a number of projects that have enhanced our understanding of cover crops and addressed barriers to adoption. Featured below are three stories about CIG cover crop projects.

With the help of a CIG award, the Midwest Cover Crops Council (MCCC) developed a Cover Crop Decision Tool that incorporates expert knowledge across several states into a decision support system for farmers. With the help of a CIG award, the Agriculture & Land-Based Training Association (ALBA) has dedicated more resources towards promoting the latest cover crop techniques and improving their adoption rate among historically underserved producers. With support from a 2007 CIG award, the Oahu Resource Conservation and Development (RC&D) Council produced new NRCS guidelines for cover crop establishment in tropical and subtropical regions as well as a cover crop handbook that is available to US producers in tropical climates.
Cover Crop Decision Tool Innovations in Cover Crops Cover Crop Handbook
     

Addressing Local Concerns

Every year, states may host a Conservation Innovation Grant (CIG) competition in addition to the National CIG opportunity. State level CIG projects provide unique solutions to locally important natural resources concerns. Featured below are three state-level CIG projects that created valuable local impacts in Iowa, Oregon and New Jersey.

Soybeans grow through a cover crop in Iowa NRCS Partner Employee certified wildlife biologist Elizabeth Ciuzio Freiday is in a field of kudzu, which is highly threatening to native communities. Photo by Jean Lynch of New Jersey Audubon Society, used with permission. Oregon State fruit growers adopted cleaner burning technology for cleaner air
Water Quality Pest Management Air Quality
     

Read about CIG projects supporting improved soil health, healthy grazing lands and boosting organic agriculture.

 

CIG project results concluded that net farm income increased by up to $110 per acre with the adoption of the no-till/cover crop system.
Soil Health Grazing Lands Organic Agriculture

 

Agriculture Conservation Planning Framework

CEAPWatersheds_forACPF

The Agricultural Conservation Planning Framework (ACPF) is a versatile tool enabling communities across the U.S. to improve the health of their waterways. The tool was developed through two CIG awards to the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), the first in 2011 and the second in 2016. The original goal of the main project partners, EDF and the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), was to integrate precision conservation and improved technical information into a freely available watershed planning tool. ACPF has embraced government agencies and non-governmental organizations as an effective tool for improving watershed health.  

ACPF creates a flexible framework for conservation planners through modeling of multiple conservation scenarios that can hypothetically limit the movement of nutrients and test approaches to minimize the potential nutrients to pollute waterbodies. Built as a geographic analysis program in GIS, ACPF can identify a suite of conservation practices that are suitable for a given area of land that range in scale from a single farm to a watershed. Practices included in the model can be customized to local preferences and economic tools and stakeholder feedback can also be incorporated. The flexible nature of the ACPF allows conservation planners to target conservation practices that will most effectively improve water quality and then share this information with communities, conservation planners, and producers.

Following the expiration of the CIG projects, continued development and maintenance of ACPF has been supported by an interagency agreement between NRCS and ARS. ACPF is currently in use in hundreds of watersheds. ACPF data is available for Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin and parts of Indiana, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, and South Dakota. A pilot project is underway to expand the use of ACPF into the Western Lake Erie Basin.

The latest version of ACPF (Version 3) just launched in September 2018 and includes the capability to incorporate lakes and wide rivers into the stream delineation process, a new method for riparian discretization, and utilities that allow users to build ACPF soils and land use databases.

To learn more about the tool and download the latest version please visit the ACPF website.

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Cover Crops - Cover Crop Tool Helps Farmers Make Informed Decisions

Dried stalks and leaves serving as cover under live crops

Farmers plant cover crops on their cropland to cover and protect the soil in between growing their cash crops.

Integrating cover crops into rotations can significantly improve the health of the soil – helping to protect cropland from the effects of extreme weather, like droughts and flooding. Through better soil health farmers increase the organic matter in their soils, helping to keep water and nutrients on the land and improving water quality downstream.

Through a Conservation Innovation Grant award and other contributions, the Midwest Cover Crops Council developed a Cover Crop Decision Tool that incorporated expert knowledge across several states into a decision support system for farmers. The web-based tool allows a producer to plug in a state and county location, soil type drainage information, and the type of cash crop before and after the cover crop is going to be planted. 

The decision tool takes that information to formulate a recommendation for the best cover crop to use for that specific operation.  It gives the farmer recommendations, like species and seeding rates, tailored to their local conditions, soils, and management goals.
 
 “I can pretty quickly see what will work, what won’t work, and most importantly, what might be iffy and why so I can make an informed decision,” said Indiana Farmer Bill Verseman.   
Over the course of a year, the tool saw more than 20,000 views with more than 17,000 of those unique page views.

With the help of a CIG award, the Midwest Cover Crops Council (MCCC) developed a Cover Crop Decision Tool that incorporates expert knowledge across several states into a decision support system for farmers.

You can find can find the Cover Crop Decision Tool, with information on how it works, at the MCCC website.

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Cover Crops - Advancing Innovative Cover Crop Management Practices

With the help of a CIG award, the Agriculture & Land-Based Training Association (ALBA) has dedicated more resources towards promoting the latest cover crop techniques and improving their adoption rate among historically underserved producers.With a 2015 CIG award, the Agriculture & Land-Based Training Association (ALBA) dedicates more resources to promoting the latest cover crop techniques and increases their adoption rate among historically underserved producers. In California, ALBA provides direct outreach and technology transfer to historically underserved producers to increase the adoption of winter cover cropping, with a focus on improving farm productivity, profits, and the conservation of natural resources.

ALBA has held seven workshops and field days on cover cropping reaching over 100 beginning and socially-disadvantaged producers. To extend the impact of their project, ALBA has partnered with Oregon Tilth and Oregon State Extension to publish articles on the environmental and economic benefits of cover cropping and present information on the latest cover crop advancements via webinars and conferences. 

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Cover Crops - Cover Crop Handbook

With support from a 2007 CIG award, the Oahu Resource Conservation and Development (RC&D) Council produced new NRCS guidelines for cover crop establishment in tropical and subtropical regions as well as a cover crop handbook that is available to US producers in tropical climates.With a 2007 CIG award, the Oahu Resource Conservation and Development (RC&D) Council produced new NRCS guidelines for cover crop establishment in tropical and subtropical regions, as well as a cover crop handbook available to producers in tropical climates in the U.S. The cover crop handbook can be downloaded in English and five other languages from the Oahu RC&D Council’s website.

The project team increased the adoption of cover crop technology by demonstrating the impacts of three cover crop species—sun hemp, oats, and buckwheat—on commercial crops, and capturing associated data on pests, soil fertility, and economic impacts. During the three-year project, 14 demonstration sites were developed; each held a field day that was attended by producers from across the Hawaiian Islands.

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Water Quality - Iowa CIG successfully makes the case for planting cover crops to reduce nitrates in municipal wells

Soybeans grow through a cover crop in Iowa

In 2014, nitrate levels in drinking water in Griswold, Iowa neared the Environmental Protection Agency’s standard of 10 mg/L. Exceeding the nitrate limit would force the community to find an alternate source of drinking water. Costly engineering solutions for treatment were not an economically feasible option for the 1,000 residents of this small town. Because commercial fertilizer was identified as the primary source of nitrogen in the ground water wells, the city source water protection team included farmers in their exploration of possible solutions. The collaboration led to development of a plan of action.

The City of Griswold received a 2014 Iowa state CIG award that provided conservation planning and financial assistance to increase the cover crop adoption rate in the capture zones of Griswold's municipal wells. During the two-year project, farmers planted cover crops on 75 percent of the cropland within the identified capture zone area. Well monitoring before, during and after the project indicated that by year five, the extensive 75 percent cover crop adoption resulted in nitrate reductions in the city's drinking water supply.

This innovative effort shows how widescale adoption of proven conservation practices on agricultural lands can help small communities that draw water from shallow aquifers address environmental challenges. Today, several years after the completion of the Griswold project, farmers are still planting cover crops on 75 percent of the city’s well capture zone while the statewide average adoption rate is three percent. CIG is not just about new technology—partners use the program to explore innovative ways to incentivize and motivate landowners and land managers to increase adoption of conservation practices for the benefit of the environment and local communities.

Learn more about cover crops:

Commercial fertilizer was identified as the primary source of nitrogen in the ground water wells   Well monitoring before, during and after the project indicated that by year five, the extensive 75 percent cover crop adoption resulted in nitrate reductions in the city's raw water supply.   Today, farmers are still planting cover crops on 75 percent of the city's well capture zone.
Runoff from cropland was the primary source of nitrogen in Griswold's ground water   After cover crops were planted, water samples showed lower nitrate levels   Collaboration between citizens, farmers and groups can result in greater success

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Pest Management - A CIG project in New Jersey creates an app to nip invasive species in the bud

NRCS Partner Employee certified wildlife biologist Elizabeth Ciuzio Freiday is in a field of kudzu, which is highly threatening to native communities. Photo by Jean Lynch of New Jersey Audubon Society, used with permission.

There’s an app for that! The New Jersey Invasive Species Strike Team received a CIG award from the NRCS State Office in New Jersey for a project to empower agricultural producers and forest land owners to identify, report and rapidly respond to newly discovered and localized populations of invasive species. The project’s goal was to create an app to facilitate the implementation of the Early Detection/Rapid Response strategy used to stop the spread of emerging invasive species in New Jersey’s natural and agricultural systems.

The project team created and launched an app for smart phones and tablets called NJ Invasives, as well as a web-based program called IPC Connect New Jersey. Both were made available to help small-scale producers easily and inexpensively identify and report invasive species they come across during their everyday work. The app and web-based program have been successfully deployed and are in use by producers. Through the innovative app, thousands of invasive species records have been added to the Strike Team database.

The benefits of this project extend far beyond the producer community in New Jersey as invasive species can impact ecological functions in both developed and wild ecosystems. The apps continue to be widely promoted and are available free of charge to all those interested in helping combat invasive species in New Jersey.

The project team created and launched an app for smart phones and tablets called NJ Invasives as well as a web-based program called IPC Connect New Jersey.   Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) is one of many invasive species in New Jersey.
NJ Invasives and IPC Connect New Jersey are apps designed to identify and respond to local growth of invasive species   Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) is one of many invasive species in New Jersey

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Air Quality - Oregon State CIG Promotes Clean Air Through Cleaner Burning Technology

Oregon State fruit growers adopted cleaner burning technology for cleaner air

In 2015, Oregon fruit growers in the Hood River Valley stopped burning their orchard pruning wood in open piles and began safely and cleanly burning it in an innovative air curtain burner, or burn box. The burn box produces almost no smoke and significantly reduces the amount of airborne particulates emitted when burning wood.

The first burn box was purchased and demonstrated as part of a CIG project led by Hood River County. The County and fruit growers in the Columbia River Gorge used data collected through the project to evaluate methods for reducing the impacts of pile burning countywide.

As part of the project, participant fruit growers recorded data each time they used the burn box. NRCS and the Columbia Gorge Fruit Growers used the data to track burn box usage and impacts, ultimately showing showed discernible improvements to air quality. In 2015 alone, Hood River fruit growers eliminated about 1.35 tons of particulate matter by using burn boxes instead of open-pile burning. As a direct result of the successful CIG pilot, financial assistance for burn box technology is now available to producers through EQIP's Air Quality Initiative.

Read more about the Oregon CIG project

Watch a four-minute video on YouTube

See more photos from the Hood River Air Quality Project on Flickr

Oregon fruit growers in the Hood River Valley stopped burning their orchard pruning wood in open piles, and began safely and cleanly burning it in an innovative air curtain burner, or burn box.   The burn box produces almost no smoke and significantly reduces the amount of airborne particulates.   NRCS and the Columbia Gorge Fruit Growers recorded data to track burn box usage which showed discernible improvements to air quality.
Oregon fruit growers started burning their orchard pruning wood in an innovative air curtain burner, or burn box   The burn box produces almost no smoke and significantly reduces the amount of airborne particulates   Financial assistance for burn box technology is now available to producers through EQIP's Air Quality Initiative

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Soil Health - Quantifying the Economic Impact of Soil Health Practices

CIG project results concluded that net farm income increased by up to $110 per acre with the adoption of the no-till/cover crop system.

A growing interest in soil health and soil health systems has spurred increased interest in the use of no-till systems and the planting of cover crops to help ensure that soil is covered year round. Farmer adoption of no-till/cover crop systems hinges on a number of factors, including how these practices impact a farm operation’s bottom line. A recently completed CIG project by the National Association of Conservation Districts (NACD) and Datu Research goes beyond anecdotal reports and provides detailed information on the economic impact of cover crops and no-till farming to complement the body of research on the conservation benefits of these soil health practices.

During the 3-year study, four corn and soybean farmers experimented with cover crops and/or no-till, and calculated the year-by-year changes in income they attributed to these practices compared to a pre-adoption baseline. The project results concluded that net farm income increased by up to $110 per acre with the adoption of the no-till/cover crop system. The case studies available on the NACD website show that cost increases of implementing these practices were offset by reductions in input and erosion repair costs and increases in yields.

While Datu Research was conducting the case studies, NACD built a nationwide network of Soil Health Champions—over 200 landowners/operators implementing good soil health management systems on their land. The Soil Health Champions are now working to promote beneficial practices in their communities and will include the Datu case studies in their outreach to farmers. Although it is only a snapshot of a handful of farm operations, this project adds to a growing body of evidence that the adoption of soil health systems and practices can result in more money in a farmer’s pocket.

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Grazing Lands - Conservation Planning for Navajo Livestock Producers

After a long-simmering land dispute that began in the Southwestern United States was settled in 1996, Navajo families were relocated to a new community, called New Lands, in Sanders, Arizona. Along with the relocation came the task of developing 14 range units for ranching totaling 365,000 acres.

With the support of a 2014 CIG award, First Nations Development Institute, an organization that assists American Indian communities in economic development, provided technical assistance that enabled 14R Ranch to develop a conservation-planning process piloted on the 14 range units. This project, driven by Navajo Nation beef producers, provided an opportunity to generate a shared vision of land-management strategies that promote wise stewardship of natural resources, serve as an affirmation of Navajo culture and traditional farming practices, and contribute to their efforts to increase economic development opportunities for their community.

The project documented the process of developing a conservation plan to develop conservation-planning templates to encourage replication of the effort by other tribal producers. Navajo Nation members were trained on the conservation strategies and worked to complete their own conservation plans. To date, using the process developed under the CIG grant, four tribal producers have been awarded Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) contracts to help finance conservation improvements on Navajo Nation lands.

First Nation Development Institute recently completed the project and published a planning guide, Conservation Planning Guide for Native Ranchers. This guide balances traditional ecological stewardship with NRCS requirements and is currently used by NRCS, Navajo Nation producers and other Tribal producers managing lands located within Arizona’s ten Tribal Conservation Districts. The guide is available as a free resource on the First Nations Development Institute website.

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Organic Agriculture Systems - Integrating Organic Agriculture Systems into NRCS Programs

​NRCS scientific foundation is based in the 170 conservation practice standards used to ensure the conservation measures adopted by farmers, ranchers and forest landowners deliver the desired conservation results on the land. Since organic farming is a production system, NRCS does not have a single Organic Agriculture conservation practice standard. Instead, the unique needs of organic systems are woven into a large number of NRCS practice standards. To adapt to the growing needs of our customers, NRCS is integrating organic agriculture systems into these practice standards, a reflection of the increasing number of producers transitioning to organic systems.

A recent CIG project led by the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) supports this effort and ensure that NRCS field staff are better prepared to work with organic producers. Additionally, the NCAT project evaluated NRCS Farm Bill Programs to identify unintentional barriers that could limit the participation of organic producers.

NCAT worked with ten leading sustainable and organic agriculture organizations to better integrate organic, transitioning to organic, and other sustainable production systems into NRCS programs and make these programs more accessible to sustainable and organic farmers. The recommendations developed by the group resulted in changes to 15 Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) conservation enhancements and the addition of one new CSP enhancement. The team trained farmers and NRSC field staff through ten webinars, five in-person trainings and a published guidebook for NRCS field staff working with organic and transitioning-to-organic farmers and ranchers. This CIG project improves the accessibility and relevance of NRCS programs for organic producers, helping NRCS address the unique needs of organic systems.

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More CIG Successes

     
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Conservation Innovations Newsletter

CIG projects featured on the USDA Blog

CIG 2004-2017 innovation successes publication