Tuesday, November 19, 2013

New effort helps farmers with tools to measure conservation impacts

By Ciji Taylor
With a suite of services, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service is continuing to improve the science behind the techniques that help protect natural resources across the country.

NRCS is helping farmers install monitoring stations to test the quality of water flowing off their fields, measuring the effectiveness of conservation systems.

With an investment of $3 million, NRCS is partnering directly with farmers to voluntarily establish 20 edge-of-field monitoring stations that will measure the benefits of conservation systems, including cover crops, nutrient management and irrigation water management.

"Edge-of-field monitoring helps us know the true impacts of conservation," NRCS Chief Jason Weller said. "We are really excited because this data not only helps us and the producers but also helps us make a case for the value of conservation."

Information collected with the monitoring stations is not shared, Weller said. "We treat producers' information carefully," he said.

Participating farmers have partnered with university scientists, non-governmental organizations and other experts who will install and maintain the monitoring stations for them.  These farmers will implement suites of conservation practices appropriate for their farms, and partners will provide the results of the edge-of-field water quality monitoring back to them.

The financial assistance is available through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, to install and maintain the monitoring systems for up to nine years, giving time to measure the impact of conservation systems on water quality.

Wayne Honeycutt, NRCS deputy chief for science and technology, said the monitoring stations will provide highly accurate measurements of conservation benefits.

“These monitoring stations allow us to measure the benefits of conservation for improving water quality right at the edge of farm fields, rather than assume conservation effects from in-stream measurements that are subject to influences outside of the farmer’s control,” Honeycutt said.

For example, a farmer along the North Tippah Creek in northern Mississippi is setting up a monitoring station that will track how cover crops reduce erosion and nutrient runoff. The farm is divided into different sections – some with conservation work and some without.

“This will help us measure the effectiveness of in-field conservation practices on nutrient and sediment runoff,” said Mississippi State University professor Robbie Kroger, who is collecting and analyzing data from the monitoring system.  “We will also be able to highlight the agronomic benefits of the practices showcasing environmental and agricultural benefits.”

Because of the cost of the monitoring systems and data analysis, many, like Mississippi State, have partnered with NRCS to make this program affordable to landowners.

“We realized from over 78 years of voluntary conservation assistance, that collaboration would be key to the success of these efforts,” Honeycutt said. “NRCS included partners, universities and other agencies in developing what we now have as the edge-of-field water quality activity standards.”

“In particular, scientists from USDA’s Agricultural Research Service worked closely with the NRCS to ensure the scientific integrity of nearly every aspect of these new standards,” he said.

Farmers in Arkansas, Indiana, Mississippi, Missouri, New York, Ohio and Vermont were selected for the effort this year. Arkansas’ participation through the Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative, which pools conservation efforts to improve water quality in the river, led to the most involvement at 14 systems.

“NRCS is working aggressively to improve the health of small watersheds in the state and the Mississippi River basin,” said Mike Sullivan, NRCS state conservationist in Arkansas. “These producers are working with our conservation partners to put more conservation on the ground to improve water quality, maintain productivity and enhance wildlife habitat.”

The monitoring stations are part of the agency’s MRBI and watershed initiatives that help focus the right kind of conservation on the right acres to improve water quality across the country.

“Although NRCS has been treating resource concerns on private lands for more than 78 years, the top resource issues across the nation continue to be water quality and soil erosion,” said Tom Christensen, acting associate chief for operations.  “Edge-of-field monitoring will help to define the best solutions and will also be used to calibrate our models to get the most benefit from voluntary private lands conservation investments."

Information gained through edge-of-field monitoring will be evaluated each year to determine if additional stations are needed to measure conservation benefits for different soils, crops and conservation practices.

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