By Colby Gray—
DELAWARE COUNTY, IN—Rural property owners in Blackford and Delaware counties can more easily start implementing conservation practices on their land with help from a free program offered through the local Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD).
The program is called “First Steps” and involves one-on-one consultation with a local conservation representative. The SWCD representative helps the property owner identify conservation goals for the property by collecting, analyzing, and discussing environmental variables such as soil types, topographical information, and drainage.
The resulting plan identifies and maps possible improvements across the landscape, as well as the state and federal cost-share funding opportunities that exist to help implement them, according to SWCD District Director Clair Burt.
“This program is the first step in getting property owners to think about contemporary conservation practices on their land,” Burt said. “It’s not necessarily about taking land out of farm production. It’s about giving property owners the information they need to manage the land in a way that is more tailored and fine-tuned.” The informational program is novel in its approach. While the regional representatives promote practices like active forest management, healthy waterways, regenerative agriculture, and alternative crops, the final action steps outlined in the conservation plans are entirely landowner driven.
For example, on a tract in Hamilton Township in Delaware County, the SWCD suggested a reconfiguration of the land to include a mix of row crops, hardwood timber, alternative crops, and waterway buffering with switchgrass. The landowner, Jeremy Russell, plans to implement some, but not all, of the suggestions.
Russell said he understood the value of the approach. “In light of changing policy shifts in agriculture, I appreciated having an outsider’s perspective about what conservation practices might be a good fit for my land in future years,” he said. “While all the suggested practices do not immediately work in my business model, I am going to continue exploring ways to pivot towards practices that increase profitability and the resilience of my operations.
The ideas we explored with the district representative are valuable and the beginning of a longer journey.”Implementing a First Steps plan has many benefits to the property owner and the land.These types of recommended conservation practices protect valuable topsoil from erosion while positioning productive lands for more diversified markets. They can restore soils that are compacted and depleted of natural nutrients through crop rotations and interseasonal cover. They can also reduce farming expenditures in the long run and create new sources of income.
First Steps is free, although it does not pay for implementing the plan. Fortunately, many of the types of improvements outlined in a First Steps plan are available for cost-share programs through the state and federal government. Those programs provide partial reimbursement to landowners for implementation costs.
Each First Steps plan encompasses up to 40 acres. Landowners with more than 40 acres will select a representative parcel for study. Landowners with multiple acres are encouraged to apply what they’ve learned through the planning process to the rest of their property or to submit a different 40 acre parcel for planning in a subsequent program round.
The DCSWCD provides information about soil, water, and related natural resource conservation; identifies and prioritizes local soil and water resource concerns; and connects land users to sources of educational, technical, and financial assistance to implement conservation practices and technologies.