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$900,000 Still Available to Iowa Farmers through NRCS Organic Initiative; Deadline to Apply is June 1

By Staff | May 16, 2012

AMES Iowa farmers thinking of adding another income stream in high-value organic production, or expanding certified organic acres, have until June 1 to apply for the Organic Initiative through USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).

The Organic Initiative, a sub-program of the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), supports farmers during the transition with up to $20,000 per year, or $80,000 over six years, for practices like cover crops, crop rotation, boundaries and buffer zones, grazing systems, integrated pest and weed management, and seasonal high tunnels. The program also offers technical help developing transition, grazing and conservation plans. Beginning and limited resource farmers receive additional assistance.

EQIP is a voluntary program that offers financial and technical assistance to farmers who implement conservation practices on agricultural land through contracts up to 10 years in length.

Of Iowa’s Organic Initiative program fund allocation, $900,000 is still available to eligible farmers. To be eligible, farmers do not need to be certified organic, but must be seeking to transition some portion of their farm to organic production. Certified organic farmers are also eligible, as well as those who meet organic standards but are exempt from certification because their gross annual organic sales are less than $5,000.

Farmers interested in applying for EQIP Organic Initiative funds must do so through their local NRCS County office. NRCS offices are housed in the USDA Service Centers in every county in Iowa.

Jim Petersen, a Practical Farmers of Iowa member who farms 2,400 acres near Knoxville, has a mixture of incomes from conventional row crop, livestock and organic production. He has received both Organic Initiative and EQIP funds, and says he thinks there’s more profit potential with organics.

“It’s good to have different markets to sell to,” Petersen says. “We’ve had opportunities to rent different farms where landowners wanted their farms farmed organically.”

Petersen first got involved in organic production in 2004, when three sisters (also PFI members) who own a nearby farm Shivvers Fair Acres approached him about renting 160 acres if he would farm it organically.

“We did some investigating into the rules and regulations and decided to try,” Petersen says. “I think there is a great enough demand for organics that more farmers could switch which would probably help organics in the long run because there would be a better supply.”

According to the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service, organic agriculture is one of the fastest growing segments of U.S. agriculture, and has maintained that status for more than a decade. Between 2002 and 2011, the number of certified organic operations in the U.S. jumped by 240 percent.

Many Iowa farmers have started seizing on this strong market demand by transitioning a small portion of their land to organic production while keeping the majority of their acres dedicated to established income streams. This opens the door to receiving premium prices for organic crops while preserving the stability of familiar production systems. In addition, adding an organic enterprise such as hay, livestock, row crops or produce can be a viable way to involve the next generation in the family farm business.

This scenario is exactly what played out for Petersen, who has been able to involve all four of his children in the family farm. The extra income from his organic enterprises has also allowed him to give up his day job to farm full-time.

“Having the better market and different opportunities that came from organics has allowed our children to be more involved with the farm,” Petersen says, “and I myself have been able to quit my off-farm job.”

For farmers already certified organic, the Organic Initiative can provide support in developing expansion plans, and ensuring environmental sustainability targets are being reached.

More information about the Organic Initiative, including background information and Iowa success stories, is available online at www.ia.nrcs.usda.gov/programs/OrganicInitiative.html.

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