September 5, 2017 at 3:32 p.m.

Firsthand look at EQIP in action

Patience advised when dealing with government paperwork
Beef grazier Rod Ofte (left) of Viola, Wis., and Vernon County Conservationist Ben Wojahn talk about a fence funded partly by the USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). Ofte hosted a Kickapoo Grazing Initiative pasture walk May 22.<br /><!-- 1upcrlf -->PHOTO BY RON JOHNSON
Beef grazier Rod Ofte (left) of Viola, Wis., and Vernon County Conservationist Ben Wojahn talk about a fence funded partly by the USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). Ofte hosted a Kickapoo Grazing Initiative pasture walk May 22.<br /><!-- 1upcrlf -->PHOTO BY RON JOHNSON

By By Ron Johnson- | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

Viola, Wis. - Farmers who want to help the environment and improve their land at the same time might want to look into the USDA's Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). Rod Ofte did, and has solid results to show for it.
Ofte hosted a Kickapoo Grazing Initiative (KGI) pasture walk May 22 on land he owns in Vernon County near Viola, Wis. He talked about his experiences with EQIP and showed some three dozen visitors the sturdy, five-strand barbed wire fence the program helped pay for.
The fence is the perimeter of a 28-acre pasture Ofte rents to a nearby beef farmer. Ofte, who grew up on a dairy farm, rotationally grazes 58 beef cattle near Coon Valley. He said he bought the land near Viola because he ran out of hay during a recent winter.
The West Point graduate and former U.S. Army captain said he looks for three things when he considers buying land.
"When I'm looking at land, I like to see water, grass and fencing," Ofte said.
The 74-acre Viola parcel has grass. It also has water, thanks to springs and the Kickapoo River cutting through it. But it lacked a fence.
For that, and environmental reasons, Ofte turned to EQIP. With the help of Ben Wojahn, from the Vernon County Land and Water Conservation Department, and Sam Skemp, district conservationist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Ofte navigated the maze of rules and paperwork that participating in EQIP entails.
"There is a lot of paperwork with EQIP, a lot of signatures, a lot of thinking," Ofte said. "You have to have a plan, and you have to work with them (government officials) to make that plan work."
Ofte began working on his EQIP plan two years ago. The pasture fence went up last summer, and Ofte said he plans to fence four more acres, but without the aid of the government program.
His EQIP work included providing habitat for insects that are important for pollinating crops and other plants. Ofte pointed out orange flags denoting where pear trees and elderberry bushes were planted. His EQIP plan also included installing a house for bats.
Wojahn and Skemp pointed out that each landowner's EQIP plan is unique. Part of that is due to the landowner's needs, what's best for the land and the current EQIP rules. The USDA changes those rules every so often. For example, the so-called pollinator program is no longer in place.
They also said the term cost-sharing is not correct when it comes to EQIP. Instead, landowners are reimbursed for part of the cost of their conservation work. The reimbursement money is not paid until the project is finished and the work has been inspected and approved.
"Always be in the situation where you can float that debt for the time necessary, before you get involved with EQIP," Wojahn said.
The first step in getting going with EQIP, the conservationists said, is to visit the county NRCS office and talk about a proposed project. Be prepared to provide basic information, like the amount of land involved, its location and animal numbers. In addition, landowners need to be fully signed up for Farm Service Agency (FSA) programs, the conservationists said.
To get into EQIP, landowners need to fill out a form that makes sure a conservation plan is in place. EQIP applications are ranked according to local concerns, the amount of conservation benefits a proposed project will provide, and the needs of the applicant.
If it gets to the point that an EQIP contract is signed, a landowner is given the standards and specifications to complete the practices. Then the work has to be done within a specified time frame. After the work is done and inspected, the NRCS reimburses the landowner at the rate established in the rules.
Eligible work includes fencing, cattle lanes, wells, water lines and water tanks, seeding, interseeding and cover crops. What's more, a farmer can receive payments for up to three years for using prescribed grazing if that is part of the EQIP plan.
Skemp and Wojahn were asked about the reimbursement rate for building a fence. They said that depends on the current rules and the type of fence.
The rules reimburse at $1.26 per linear foot for a barbed wire or smooth wire fence that is made of more than one strand. And that fence must be used to hold livestock. The most a landowner can be reimbursed for such a fence is $15,000.
Woven wire fences and high-tensile electric fences are also eligible for reimbursement, at $2.19 and $.35 per linear foot. Again, they must be used to hold livestock.
Fences built for safety reasons are also eligible, as are movable fences in pastures. Single-wire electric fences in pastures can be eligible, too.
Certain obligations go along with an EQIP-reimbursed fence. Wojahn said the fences must be made of new materials. And, there are specifications as to a fence's number of wires, length and height.
"Follow those (specifications) exactly," he said.
Another thing to know is that an EQIP agreement requires that the fence be maintained for 20 years. One more important point is that any money a farmer or other landowner received through EQIP is treated as taxable income.
Wojahn told his audience that Vernon County is very competitive when it comes to getting plans ranked for high priority for EQIP funding. Proof of that is the fact that more than 30 miles of EQIP fences have been built in the county since 2008.
When seeking EQIP participation, it helps if a landowner is patient, polite and persistent, the conservationist said. Be patient with the paperwork. He estimated that as many as 10 documents might have to be filled out and signed.
"It is a government program," Wojahn said. "Not all government programs make that much sense. Not all government paperwork seems as necessary as the people in the office make it seem."
And, it might take a year - or longer - to finish all the planning and paperwork. Another year might elapse after a contract is signed, the project's work is completed, and the landowner receives reimbursement, Wojahn said.
"There is not a single better funding tool to get this much good, working land and conservation at the same time as EQIP," Wojahn said. "But it's not for everybody."
Ofte said, "I'm not a big government support fan, but these guys do a first-class job."[[In-content Ad]]


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