By Catherine Cannon, Natural Resources Conservation Service
What images come to mind when you think “agricultural producer”? Do you think of expansive wheat fields, herds of cattle, and big tractors? What about rows of vegetables, heritage pigs in a pasture, organic tomatoes in a hoop house? Agricultural producers are, by definition, just that – people producing any agricultural product from the land, regardless of the size of the operation. Small farm owners often don’t think of themselves in those terms either and, as such, are unaware that financial assistance opportunities through the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) are available.
Small farms are growing in numbers, but they are often overlooked when discussing agricultural and natural resource concerns. A small farm doesn’t equate to small problems. Natural resource concerns, while perhaps occurring at a smaller scale, still have big impacts – soil health, wind erosion, weed infestations, energy usage. Compounded together over many small farms, these can affect the environment in an area just as much as a single large operation. To add insult to injury, the line between black and red often thins and relatively small improvements can be out of reach, small losses can shut the doors. “Any little bit helps” is an often heard sentiment regardless of the size of the farm, but those “little bits” may be a big solution to a small farm operator - energy savings, longer growing season, reducing wind damage.
“I want to find opportunities for improvement and energy savings”, Methow Wild Fruits said Alyssa Jumars of Methow Wild Fruits in Carlton, Washington, when she approached the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Katie Haven of McFarland Creek Lamb Ranch in Methow, Washington, also sought assistance in finding those little bits. Through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, both women are now able to hire an energy auditor to identify energy saving improvements within their operations. Saving energy is the low hanging fruit for finding those little bits to improve operations and continue business. To further those savings, many utility districts offer rebates for energy saving improvements.
Natural Resources Conservation Service also offers financial assistance to install many improvements identified in an audit. Cameron Green and Eric Wittenbach of Willowbrook Farms in Carlton, Washington, have been tackling those little bits one bit at a time. Starting with a seasonal high tunnel (“hoop house”) they are able to stave off the cold nights and offer tomatoes at the local farmers market. Curious as to what other bits they could pull together, they received assistance for an energy audit which identified their current irrigation pump as a source of costly inefficiencies. Based upon that audit, they were also able to receive assistance to install a variable frequency drive. They are now operating at a fraction of the energy and water previously used to irrigate their vegetable beds. Future additions of soil moisture sensors will further reduce water usage, while hedgerows will reduce wind damage and improve habitat for the pollinators visiting their organic farm.
Whether growing vegetables or raising sheep, the Natural Resources Conservation Service offers opportunities for virtually any type of agricultural producer to conserve natural resources and enhance operations. Find big solutions for your small farm today! NRCS offices are located in most counties, contact your local office today to get started: Okanogan County (509-422-2750); Chelan County (509-415-3692), Douglas County (509-745-8561).