Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has announced the award of 33 Conservation Innovation Grants. These grants were awarded to entities across the country to develop and demonstrate cutting-edge ideas to accelerate private lands conservation.

Recipients will demonstrate innovative approaches to improve soil health, conserve energy, manage nutrients and enhance wildlife habitat in balance with productive agricultural systems.

USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service administers this competitive grants program.



"Conservation Innovation Grants activate creativity and problem-solving to benefit conservation-minded farmers and ranchers," Vilsack said.

"These grants are critical for developing and demonstrating new ideas for conservation on America's private lands and strengthening rural communities. Everyone relies on our nation's natural resources for food, fiber, and clean water and will benefit from these grants."



"The Conservation Innovation Grant program brings together the strength and innovation of the private and non-profit sectors, academia, producers, and others to develop and test cutting-edge conservation tools and technologies and work side-by-side with producers to demonstrate how solutions work on the land," NRCS Chief Jason Weller said.



As climate changes and extreme weather events are becoming more common, these partnership grants drive cutting-edge conservation techniques that can make our nation's landscape more resilient to these changes.



The awards total $13.3 million.

Six of the approved grants support conservation technologies and approaches to help farmers and ranchers who historically have not had equal access to agricultural programs because of race or ethnicity, or who have limited resources, or who are beginning farmers and ranchers.

Among the grants that will impact the Southeast are those listed below.

Georgia

Flint River Soil and Water Conservation District (Georgia) $725,000

Mobilizing access to low-cost irrigation scheduling technology and tools in the Lower Flint River Basin of Georgia

With GPS-guided variable rate irrigation systems that are able to adapt application rates to field conditions in real-time, and new advanced irrigation scheduling tools that are cost-effective and built for both conservation and crop performance, irrigation management on the modern farm is set to make a quantum leap forward in water use efficiency.

The next step in the evolution of on-farm irrigation water management is to reduce the cost of advanced irrigation scheduling from thousands of dollars to hundreds of dollars per site to make the approach accessible to all producers.

The goals of the project are to develop and deploy a new low-cost tool, help up to 50 agricultural producers optimize irrigation scheduling, and build a conservation model for the future of agricultural water use in the United States.

University of Georgia (Georgia) $132,764

Improving nutrient management by beginning farmers by predicting nitrogen release from cover crops

The current inability to develop credible, accurate nutrient budgets when using cover crops in a rotation limits adoption and use of cover crops, resulting in continued soil health degradation and excessive fertilization/water quality impacts.

This project will demonstrate the effectiveness of a new tool (MinImob) to manage nitrogen from cover crops. MinImob calculates how much nitrogen should be available based on soil type and other localized parameters. Demonstrations will be established at five farms over two years. The benefits of using Minlmob will be transferred and communicated to producers using factsheets, field days, workshops, newsletters, and websites.

North Carolina

North Carolina State University (North Carolina) $45,0750

Refining nitrogen rates for corn in North Carolina using producer-based tools: adapt-n and yield database

Nitrogen management on corn silage and grain acres is costly and risky for producers. Inefficient crop nitrogen use limits yield and results in increased water and air pollution.

Nitrogen application is generally the largest fossil fuel input on corn grain acres. Excessive nitrate levels in groundwater and nitrogen-induced hypoxia in estuarine areas from agricultural sources are persistent concerns for human and ecosystem health. Nitrous oxide lost from soil, which traps about 300 times more heat per molecule than CO2, constitutes agriculture’s largest global warming source.

As the largest user of nitrogen fertilizer, corn production is the principal contributor to these problems from cropping systems. The primary project objectives are threefold: 1) to improve the accuracy and value of NRCS nutrient management investments through the 590 Standard in NC by updating the data upon which recommendations for nitrogen (N) rates are made--the realistic yield expectation (RYE) table for corn; 2) to determine whether Adapt-N, an in-season tool developed in the Northeast United States, can be used to make improved corn N-rate recommendations in the South and thereby reduce N loss to the environment; 3) to provide expanded corn N-rate information to the Multistate Coordination Committee and Information Exchange Group, NEERA-1002 (Adaptive Management for Improved Nutrient Management), as the group moves towards its vision of developing a national database that will use meta-data analysis to increase the reliability of N-rate recommendations for corn.

North Carolina Foundation for Soil and Water Conservation, Inc. (North Carolina) $207,267

Determine certainty program framework of a market based conservation initiative for longleaf pine habitat improvements in eastern North Carolina

This project will focus on the development of a habitat exchange system framework for wildlife species mitigation at an ecosystem level with an emphasis on market-based conservation and Certainty Program models within the traditional range of the longleaf pine ecosystem in eastern North Carolina.

The integration of these approaches will present a substantial innovation in the delivery of wildlife habitat conservation on a landscape scale and provide a pilot model approach that can be expanded and replicated regionally within the ecosystem and nationally to address other ecosystem needs.

Tennessee

University of Tennessee (Tennessee) $634,107

Long-term impacts of cover crops, crop rotations, and conservation-tillage systems on soil properties, nutrient cycling, soil water availability, and crop productivity

Cotton, soybeans, and corn are the major crops in Tennessee and the Mid-South region. Increasing the competitiveness of these crops in global markets and minimizing the adverse impacts of their production on the natural resources and environment remains a big challenge.

The objectives of this project are to: 1) demonstrate and quantify the long-term impacts of cover crops, crop rotations, and no-tillage systems and their interactions on soil chemical, physical, and biological properties; 2) quantify the impact of cover crops on  nutrient cycling, soil water availability, and cotton, soybean, and corn productivity; 3) demonstrate and quantify the differences in nutrient and available water holding capacity of soil systems under long-term no-tillage with cover crops compared with systems using tillage with no cover crop; and 4) disseminate the results of this project to NRCS, farmers, university extension agents, private consultants, and other interested groups and individuals in Tennessee and other mid-southern states.

The long-term goal is to encourage the adoption of conservation management practices and systems to improve soil health, environmental quality, crop productivity, and grower profitability.

Virginia, Maryland, Delaware

Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Delaware, Virginia, Maryland) $748,648

Decreasing nitrogen and phosphorus in drainage waters using a comprehensive drainage management approach

The Chesapeake Bay and its watershed have been the focus of much public attention and substantial conservation efforts. However, despite four decades of efforts to reduce non-point source nutrient pollution, excess nutrient delivery continues to persist in many parts of the watershed.

Controlling nutrient loss from artificially drained agricultural lands on the Atlantic Coastal Plain requires a comprehensive approach that includes field and drainage management practices to address production and water quality concerns.

This project seeks to integrate field and drainage management practices to develop, demonstrate and test a comprehensive approach to drainage management that can be readily adopted by producers on the Coastal Plain.

Working closely with conservation personnel and producers, comprehensive drainage/ditch management systems will be installed and effectiveness demonstrated on the Coastal Plain of Delaware, Maryland and Virginia. Technologies to be incorporated include gypsum curtains, biofilter curtains, biofilter reactors, active drainage management, and low-disturbance ditch maintenance practices.

These field activities will be closely coupled with educational activities aimed at producers, drainage districts and conservation personnel. Feedback from producers, drainage districts and conservation personnel will be used to adjust the practice development and implementation.