Make Use of the USDA’s Unofficial Support of Permaculture
VersaLand fields: Tree shelters protect an emerging 145 acre permaculture farm
Even though they do not know it, the Unites States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is supporting permaculture. You won’t find this word brandied within any official publications, and most extension agents would give you a quizzical look if you brought up a concept such as zonation, yet there exists a language and support system for many of the most important practices in permaculture farm-scale design.
These practices fall into the category of agroforestry, a farming technique recognized and supported by the USDA. In order to foster the adoption of agroforestry techniques, funding was secured by the National Agroforestry Center (NAC), the University of Missouri Center for Agroforestry, and the University of Minnesota Extension (both USDA land-grant universities) to host a four day train-the-trainers Agroforestry Academy. This past July I attended this intensive workshop as a educator/trainee.
Black Walnut and corn alley cropping experiment by the Center for Agroforestry.
Image: University of Missouri Center for Agroforestry.
Agroforestry Academy and permaculture
The Agroforestry Academy featured over 25 educator/trainees and roughly that same number of speakers/trainers, most of whom were USDA extension service agents, forestry professionals, university researchers and employees for various sustainable agriculture and resource conservation government organizations. Most participants were based in the upper Midwest.
These were not long-haired hippies, but folks that know how to fix a tractor, write policy, and create forest management plans. This was not a permaculture convergence, but much of what was discussed applies directly to those of us practicing permaculture design on the ground.
Perhaps 25% of everyone involved had heard of the term permaculture. The entire Academy, from the language to the structure had striking similarities to a PDC. A few examples:
- The very first lecture, on silvopastoral systems, began by introducing the much relied upon phrase of the permaculture lexicon: “It depends”.
- At lunch during the second day I asked one of the presenters, an agricultural economist, what he thought the difference is between agroforestry and permaculture. To my surprise he replied “They’re the same.”
- The Academy even included a group design exercise presented at the end of the four days. We visited and interviewed a local farming family using Holistic Management Grazing, but desiring to incorporate more agroforestry, read permaculture, practices.
- During the final wrap up, Mike Gold of the University of Missouri, one of the main event organizers, came to the day wearing his Permaculture Voices 1 t-shirt. I was happy to learn that he was a keynote speaker at the conference.
Prior to attending I reminded myself that around this crowd the use of the word permaculture might be problematic; at best they would be confused and at worst people would be turned off. But as the Academy continued I was surprised by the openness to permaculture design based ideas such as keyline, zonation, and forest gardening; and how often they became part of casual conversations between everyone present.
This quality of openness culminated as I walked with the new director of the NAC, Susan Stein, during the group’s tour of New Forest Farm in Viola, WI. We traversed the land through a ditch in the ground and I was asked what purpose the ditch served, as it seemed to travel neither up nor down the slope. This provided me the chance to explain the use of keyline swales as we were physically standing in one. It was a powerful opportunity to bring the NAC and permaculture a bit closer.
Visiting a Hazelnut breeding Program
Money from the USDA
This was naturally an informative event for myself, but what excited me in particular are the practices the NAC promotes and the financial support systems in place to fund many of these practices. The NAC recognizes five agroforestry practices: silvopasture, wind breaks, riparian buffer zones, alley cropping, and forest farming (cultivating crops in an established forest: think mushrooms or ginseng). These are all standard permaculture design strategies; they are also, in many cases, USDA conservation practices.
Through the National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) there is financial support for farmers to implement many of these practices. For those of us building a permaculture site, we all know the sometimes intimidating amount of capital needed to regenerate the land’s nutrient and water cycles. Fortunately, there exists cost-share programs, especially for Historically Underserved (HU) farmers, to implement these practices. Ignoring any political conversations about government handouts or farming subsidies, this money is available for farmers in the United States.
Let us look at a few practical examples. Depending on your state the following examples may not always apply. In the state of Iowa the NRCS/USDA Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) will provide cost-share for:
- Diversion (Conservation Practice 662): An HU farmer, transitioning to organic certification can receive $3.02/linear foot to install contour swales.
- Hedgerow Planting (CP 422): Plant a living fence to delineate field boundaries or provide wildlife habitat and the program will pay you up to $2.88/linear foot for a 3 row deep hedgerow. This does not designate species; you can plant an entirely edible hedgerow.
- Tree/Shrub Establishment (CP 612): Receive $2.97/plant to plant bare-root trees/shrubs with tree shelters.
Go here for a list of EQIP practices and payment rates.
How to make it happen
Of course it is not as easy as showing up to your local NRCS office, telling them your plan, and getting a check in the mail a few days later. Much of what we learned at the Agroforestry Academy is how to work with a client to walk them through this process.
First and foremost you need to do your research, understand the language, and learn how to work within the system. For example you might not be able to demonstrate a resource need (a key phrase) for a pond (CP 378) but perhaps you can for a sediment basin (CP 350). EQIP’s programs can be confusing and unwieldy, and it is but one of dozens of grant and cost-share programs supported by the USDA; so do your research.
Once you have done that, go to your local NRCS office and start building a relationship with your representative. Don’t use the word permaculture when describing your farm. Agroforestry is what you are practicing.
The Agroforestry Academy surprised me by building some trust in the USDA and (some) of the practices it supports. As you endeavor to establish a permaculture designed site, you might be surprised to find that your local NRCS/USDA office supports your work, and has a bit of your tax money to back up their claims. One farmer in Iowa is demonstrating the use of these programs.
An attendee of the previous year’s Agroforestry Academy, Grant Schultz knew if he wanted to farm and compete in corn and soy country, he needed to take full advantage of all the resources at his disposal. His farm VersaLand (see lead image at top of this article), recently established just outside of Iowa City, has to date received cost-share to build a high tunnel, install a well, and plant and protect approximately 28,000 trees — the farm received over $135,000 of grant funds in just one year, "to improve yields, habitat, and efficiency". And if all goes as planned, this fall Grant expects the NRCS to provide funding for animal fencing and watering systems and erosion control measures in the form of several large sediment traps (keyline ponds). Grant also manages a specialized email list for permaculturalists to learn the ropes of USDA grant and cost-share opportunities.
VersaLand provides an example of leveraging uncommon resources. Sometimes working within the current systems, with the USDA, despite all its flaws, is the best way to create change. We may shudder at industrial agriculture policy and practice, but when it pays to plant trees and dig swales, we can be confident that at least a few people in the room support the work of permaculture designers.