Oct 1, 2020
USDA funds innovation through on-farm trials of conservation systems

USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is awarding $25 million in grants designed to help partners implement and evaluate innovative conservation practices that have demonstrated benefits on farmland.

According to a news release, the funding is provided through On-Farm Conservation Innovation Trials (On-Farm Trials), a component of the Conservation Innovation Grants program first authorized in the 2018 Farm Bill.

“On-Farm Trials help producers improve the health of their operations while at the same time helping NRCS build data to show the benefit of innovative conservation systems and practices applied on the land,” said NRCS Acting Chief Kevin Norton.

On-Farm Trials awardees work with NRCS and farmers and ranchers to implement innovative practices and systems on their lands that have not yet been widely adopted by producers. Awardees are required to evaluate the conservation and economic outcomes from these practices and systems, giving partners, producers and NRCS critical information to inform conservation work in the future.

Fourteen projects are receiving On-Farm Trials awards, including six awards under the banner of the Soil Health Demonstration Trial. These six projects focus on the adoption and evaluation of soil health management systems and practices. The remaining projects focus on irrigation water management, precision agriculture and a variety of management technologies.

This year’s awarded projects:

  • A collaborative effort between the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, Texas State University, the National Center for Appropriate Technology, and Texas producers, this project focuses on the long-term regional implementation and evaluation of cover crops and improved tillage practices in degraded, subtropical soils on arid, water-limited farms. Researchers will recruit historically underserved farmers across the region to receive technical and financial assistance to improve soil health.
  • This project from North Carolina State University adds new row crop farms to an existing network of producers in an online co-learning environment integrating technology, real-time data flow, and decision support tools to promote the use of soil health management principles including carbon storage, nitrogen cycling, and water infiltration and storage.
  • American Farmland Trust will stimulate the adoption of various soil health practices by involving farms in a coast-to-coast Soil Health Demonstration project demonstrating regionally appropriate soil health strategies across three regions covering seven states and six cropping systems. Through soil sampling, in-field assessment, and crop management protocols AFT will track the short-term soil, economic, and social changes occurring as farms transition to full soil health management systems.
  • Clemson University will engage North Carolina and South Carolina cotton farmers, including historically underserved producers, to implement cover crops and conservation tillage. Participating producers will grow winter cover crops and use conservation tillage in cotton-based cropping systems to evaluate the impact on soil health to increase the adoption of these practices among cotton growers region-wide.
  • The University of Hawaii will establish a network of on-farm Soil Health Management Systems demonstrations that are individually tailored, regionally adapted, and managed by farmers, in collaboration with participating farms in Puerto Rico, American Samoa, and three Hawaiian Islands. The project emphasizes engagement with historically underserved Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander, and Hispanic farmers and restorative efforts on degraded or abandoned agricultural lands in rural communities.
  • The University of Florida will work with producers to institute a rapid, efficient, and near real-time method of estimating root zone soil moisture in vegetable farms, with a long-term goal of helping agricultural producers and stakeholders achieve balance between water resource conservation and farming profitability through improved irrigation accuracy and planning.
  • Vermont Land Trust will work with test farms to plan and implement a four-part Soil Health Management System for each site including: no-till seeding of forage and cover crops; nutrient management via application of compost and bioavailable soil amendments; non-invasive mechanical pasture improvement; and management-intensive rotational grazing of livestock. Outcomes will be evaluated against five control sites and used to produce a predictive pasture health model.
  • Michigan State University will work with producers to field-test a low-cost remote sensor monitoring system in corn, soybean, and small vegetable production plots. MSU will assess adoption through surveys conducted in collaboration with partners Michigan Farm Bureau and Michiana Irrigation Association.
  • University of Illinois, in collaboration with Washington State University’s Extension Program and cotton, corn, soy, and wheat producers, plans to deploy a data-intensive crop management system based on on-farm precision experiments. Farmers will use these tools to conduct site-specific, data-based evaluation of the yield costs of reducing nitrogen losses, enabling data-informed input management decisions.
  • The University of Minnesota will implement on-farm corn PNM (precision nitrogen management) and monitoring trials on farms in Minnesota and Indiana in order to assess the agronomic, economic, and environmental benefits of PNM technology in comparison with farmers’ current nitrogen management practices under diverse on-farm conditions.
  • Ridge to Reefs, Inc. will bring together a coalition of organizations representing academia, public, private, and non-governmental sectors in Puerto Rico to help farmers implement improved Regenerative Production Systems consisting of a suite of Enhanced Management Practices. Both small- to medium-scale farms will implement practices focused on their specific resource concerns and production goals.
  • Texas A&M University, in collaboration with commodity boards and grower networks, will work with soybean, corn, and cotton producers across eight states to enhance on-farm adoption of integrated herbicide-resistant weed management practices through a focus on cover crops and harvest weed seed control.
  • In collaboration with corn, soybean, wheat, and cotton producers, Michigan State University aims to reduce nitrogen fertilizer losses from agricultural fields by implementing two interconnected strategies: site-specific, data-driven, variable-rate nitrogen fertilizer application rates, and replacement of unprofitable and/or unresponsive areas with restored native vegetation.
  • Candidus, Inc. will implement and demonstrate an advanced greenhouse lighting control system coupled with site-specific lighting strategies, in cooperation with greenhouses in three states, with the goal of improving greenhouse energy efficiency and increasing profitability for growers.

For a full list of recipients or to learn more, visit the On-Farm Trials website.

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