We sat down with Mark Lefebvre, Conservation Planning Team Manager and Certified Crop Advisor for the Stearns County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) to talk about federal and state funding opportunities for Advanced Irrigation Water Management (IWM).
Regardless of which state you live in, your local Conservation Planner is there to help you apply for government funding for a variety of agriculture management practices. The programs we talk about in this blog are based on what is available in Stearns County, Minnesota, and the associated watersheds of that area.
Reach out to your local Conservation District to learn more about what funding you may qualify for. At EarthScout, we focus on soil moisture, so that will be the main focus in this discussion.
What are the most common funding programs for Advanced IWM in Stearns County?
One Watershed, One Plan: The One Watershed, One Plan program allows local water planning to be managed in a systematic way across multiple counties sharing a watershed.
This is a targeted funding process that focuses to restore and protect the watershed. The protection strategies are scientific in nature and can be measured using tools such as soil moisture sensors, to document and prove measurable management practices. The data aspect of the program assists in the evaluation of the program’s success and future decision making.
This financial assistance is provided by the state to address water quality and water quantity, prevent erosion and soil transport, and promote healthy groundwater recharge.
This program brings together water conservation professionals (County, SWCD, NRCS) from each watershed using modeling and other tools to set priorities and determine what kinds of practices they want to use to address resource concerns throughout the watershed.
Because watersheds naturally cross county lines, the One Watershed, One Plan program tries to match the NRCS standard as far as payment rates, so that it is uniform from county to county. This can be state or local funding, and eligibility for these funds depends on where you are located.
Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP): The RCPP is a state conservation program funded by the NRCS to solve natural resource challenges on farm lands. This source of funding is primarily targeted toward irrigation. Multiple counties in Minnesota were funded through this grant program and it included training of conservation planners working directly with landowners, as well as financial assistance for farmers to purchase Advanced Irrigation Management equipment like soil moisture sensors and various pivot upgrades.
This program has shown the high demand for funding in this area of agriculture. The technologies that farmers are using to manage precision irrigation are improving and the number of farmers seeking certification in conservation has seen an increase. Farmers showed an overwhelming interest in this program and so many people signed up for funding in 2023 that all the funds allocated for 2023 and 2024 were used this year. We should expect to continue to see funding for these types of programs.
Minnesota Ag Water Quality Certification Program (MAWQCP): MAWQCP is a reimbursable program for farmers to adopt conservation practices that protect our water quality. Through this program, farm managers plan to do management on their own and the SWCD helps them with any technical assistance they would need. The program can pay 75% of the actual cost – not to exceed $5,000.
Regardless of which program you are applying for, the state and local funding applications listed above typically take less than a month to be approved. You can submit an application at any time of year, as funds are distributed on an “as needed” basis. When your application is approved, you receive the money up front, and then become certified the next three years through reporting requirements that verify that you are using the funding for conservation practices. More information regarding reporting can be found later in this blog.
Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP): EQIP is the largest source of federal funding programs that Stearns SWCD helps growers receive. This is one of the most competitive programs and is scored and ranked based on distance to impaired waters and various environmental factors. If you are addressing more than one resource concern, it increases your score. These funds are distributed using the NRCS standard for contracting and payment rates.
If you are participating in this program and using equipment like soil moisture sensors, there is extra payment for the equipment because you are using it to help you make water conservation decisions and adopt Advanced Irrigation Water Management practices.
For the Federal Advanced Irrigation Water Management program (EQIP), there is a 3 year commitment. In year one, you install the sensors in the Spring, and at the end of the irrigation season you are required to turn in a report to show when you irrigated, irrigation amounts, rainfall amounts, and sensor data.
Then your Conservation Planner reviews the information and can certify you to receive payment. In year one, you are paid for the hardware and the management practice at the end of the season, and then paid two more times for management practice for the remainder of the program.
The time it takes to receive federal funds is different from the state funds. To receive funding in the Spring, you must apply by early Fall the previous year. The applications are scored and ranked after the fall deadline and farmers are typically notified if they are approved prior to spring planting.
What products/technologies qualify for Advanced IWM funding?
Tier one of most funding starts with purchasing soil moisture sensors for precision irrigation management. Soil moisture sensors can be purchased with or without upgrades to irrigation systems. Farmers can receive additional funding to make changes to pumping systems if they need an upgrade. Some funding is available to convert diesel motors to electric, as well as adding variable frequency drives to a pivot. Soil moisture sensors are important for field mapping when implementing variable rate irrigation.
The RCPP program has received additional funding for panel upgrades to assist in conservation stewardship practice. This funding is not typically available in general EQIP, but the NRCS is constantly tweaking components of funding so things like this may be added in the future based on feedback they get from field offices.
What does the government require for reporting/conservation certification?
All federal and state funding requires a certification to ensure funds are being used appropriately. Farmers must submit records at the end of the season that show all rainfall events, irrigation events, and irrigation amounts. Any sensor information, like graphs, are helpful to verify that you are using the equipment to help determine when to irrigate.
At this time, reporting can be submitted in any format because there is not currently an implementation worksheet provided by the NRCS to certify these programs.
What is the History of Irrigation Water Management Funding?
EQIP began putting money towards irrigation practice in the mid 2000’s. The funding was used to improve energy efficiency of pivot irrigation systems by converting high pressure sprinklers to low pressure. Most pivots across the county have been converted to low pressure, so now farmers are taking the next step to further improve management with sensors, and possibly variable rate irrigation.
What is the Future of Advanced IWM Funding?
As sensor technology has improved over the last few years, there has been more of a shift toward advanced irrigation management among farmers. Growers are seeing savings with variable rate irrigation where they were previously drowning out crops in wet areas of the field, or where pivots are overlapping. They are saving on energy costs and increasing yield in these areas.
Now that this trend is heading in that direction, we should expect to see the NRCS adding more funding for irrigation panel upgrades to accommodate these more advanced irrigation systems.
There are more funding opportunities available to growers at a federal and state level. This blog is highlighting what Stearns County SWCD is assisting growers with. To learn more about whether you qualify for these IWM funds, talk to your local conservation planner.
In Minnesota, your Soil and Water Conservation District officers are there to help you determine which NRCS programs are best for your farm and assist with all the associated paperwork, as well. Based on feedback from field offices, state and federal funding may change year to year.
If you see the benefit of soil moisture sensors or other conservation practices on your farm, talk to your conservation planner and share your thoughts. There may be more funding available in the future based on this feedback.
As a technology company, we value our relationship with our farmers as well as our local Conservation Districts. As farmers adopt new management practices and technologies, it is important to have access to information that will help everyone succeed. Our work with Minnesota Soil and Water Conservation Districts has helped us improve the EarthScout APP, as well as the customer support and agronomic reporting services we provide throughout the year.
When you work with EarthScout, whether or not you are enrolled in a Conservation Program, you can receive an agronomic report at the end of the season that highlights important information from your growing season.
Many current EarthScout customers are turning in their EarthScout Agronomic Reports for their conservation certifications. We are happy to customize your agronomic reports to meet any certification requirements for your conservation programs.