Team up

Plan ahead to get the most out of working with a government program.
BY Craig Hoelscher
Three people stand in an agriculture field. One holds a tablet.

Every grower wants to increase the efficiency of their farm. Many times, this involves a significant investment, whether it is equipment or software. Replacing your current irrigation system with a more efficient product or design can run up a large bill.

Thankfully, the last few farm bills have had a portion of money dedicated to water conservation. Improving irrigation system efficiency falls under a section called the Environmental Quality Incentives Program administered through the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Across the United States, every NRCS office is able to focus on the needs of their state, region and county. As you can imagine, these needs vary greatly from one area to another.

Plan ahead

When you are looking to apply for assistance through EQIP, there are many things to consider before you go and a list of questions to ask once you get there. A quick search on the NRCS website will give you a broad description of the EQIP program. This helps you understand what you are asking for when you get to the NRCS office. Call your local office to determine the signup deadline, which is different every year. Remember, every state has different priorities, and within those priorities, each county can have its own differences. If you farm or own land in different counties or states, the same questions may get you slightly different answers from location to location.

New irrigation systems made today will last a long time, whether they are drip irrigation systems, pivots or micro sprays. That means implementing a new irrigation system requires a long-term approach. It is best to sit down with your irrigation dealer to discuss what system works best for your land and get a rough idea of the size of investment it would take. Include discussions about your water source and if there are any additional components needed to get your water to the irrigation system.

It is important to know what your irrigation history is at the Farm Service Agency. In Texas, the acres you want to install are required to have been irrigated two out of the last five years to be eligible for the program. Also, the number of irrigated acres cannot increase. If the entire field is not irrigated, there are limits to how many nonirrigated acres can be swapped with irrigated acres. At the same time, you may be considering decreasing your irrigated acres. In most areas, you will receive a higher priority for taking irrigated acres out of production. Every office is different, so be sure to ask if this gives you a higher priority and what the terms are for taking acres out of production.

The landowner, tenant or farming operation can sign up for EQIP. This should be considered and discussed before you get to the NRCS office. It also should be clearly communicated to your irrigation dealer. The invoice and contract must be under the same name.

Once you have an idea of what you would like to apply for, it is time to schedule an appointment with your NRCS office. There are many practices available within EQIP to help improve your efficiency. When you discuss your plan for your farm, be sure to start with any improvements you would like to make to your pumping station and conveyance system, as well as your irrigation system. It is very important to understand how much assistance is available for each practice and what requirements are needed to get that assistance.

For example, in subsurface drip irrigation systems, there is a standard all dealers must follow for design and installation. Another example is that all components must be new. Some states require an invoice to be turned in and will reimburse a percentage of the invoice. Other states pay a set amount for each practice. Either way, be sure you are clear how much you will get reimbursed once the practice is installed. It is important to note that there are funding limits for each farm bill. If you have multiple projects or one large project, be sure to ask about funding limits.

The waiting game

You have applied for EQIP, now what? Nothing will happen until after the application deadline. Generally, within a month or two afterward, your local NRCS office will contact you if you have been awarded a contract. At this point, it is important to get an updated price from your irrigation dealer. You are not obligated to sign, so if the price increased significantly or if for some other reason you decided to not go through with updating your irrigation system, you can choose to not sign the contract. This will allow the money to go to the next person in line. Conversely, if you do like the price and continue by signing the contract, be sure you understand how long you have to get the project installed. It is important to understand that once you have signed the contract there is a penalty if you decide not to install the irrigation system.

There is one more step before the installation process can start. The design must be approved by a Technical Service Provider or an NRCS engineer. Sometimes this may be required to be done before you apply for EQIP or before your contract is signed. Again, every state is different and every local office can be different. In Texas, the design is approved after the contract is signed. You are also required to turn in a water sample and provide the 811 confirmation number before you start the installation. This is to make sure you are aware of any potential complications due to your water quality, and the 811 confirmation is for your protection and to make sure you are following legal rules about excavation.

Now you are ready to install your new irrigation system! In most states, the local office requires notification that you are planning to start your installation. The installation may be overseen by a TSP or the local office. During the installation they will be checking to make sure the project is being installed to the guidelines mentioned earlier. Once the project is complete, the local office or TSP will approve the installation and then you will get reimbursed for the amount in your contract.

While this may seem like a long process, the efficiency gained on your farm will last much longer!

Craig Hoelscher is the CEO of Eco-Drip Irrigation in Lubbock, Texas.
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