$7M available to fund conservation practices

Mark Davis credits an Ottawa County-based conservation program for enabling his blueberry farm to “bee” what it is today.

Davis, managing partner of Ravenna-based Jawor Brothers Blueberries, is among those in Ottawa, Kent, Muskegon, Newaygo and Allegan counties who enlisted the help of the Ottawa Conservation District Regional Conservation Partnership Program’s inaugural Farmland and Water Quality Conservation Initiative (FWQCI). The program helped to convert some of his acreage into a bee-friendly habitat.

Farmland and Water Quality Conservation Initiative Project Area Map

Bees pollinating his 800 (soon to be 1,325 acres) of high-bush blueberry shrubs are critical, says Davis, adding the cost of pollinating services kept going up but the quality of pollination decreased.

“(The bees) are transported all over the country, pollinating different crops,” says Davis. “It’s stressful for them, and overall it impacts their efficiency to do their job.”

About $7 million available

The FWQCI project will leverage nearly $7 million in federal, state and local dollars over the next five years. The project is funded through the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Regional Conservation Partnership Program for its Farmland and Water Quality program.

Kyle Hildebrandt and Alex Svoboda discuss pasture health with a local farmer.

The program, first opened to the public in March 2022, provided $780,000 in cost-share funding for conservation practices on 4,174 acres of farmland in Ottawa and Kent counties. These efforts protected soil and water quality, including cover crops (which help control erosion, improve soil fertility, and improve farmland productivity), reduce tillage, grassed waterways and prescribed grazing.

Owners interested in farmland, forest and water quality conservation have until Nov. 28 to contact the Ottawa Conservation District Regional Conservation Partnership Program to begin developing a no-cost conservation plan.

Landowners then must submit a signed application by Jan. 23 if they are seeking cost-share funding in 2023.

Both the Ottawa Conservation District and Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) provide personalized technical assistance to farmers and forest landowners for conservation planning year-round.

“We meet landowners on their sites to develop a conservation plan and evaluate the soil and sometimes wildlife habitat, the farming and forest practices and how to improve soil and water quality and reduce water use,” says Alex Svoboda, Ottawa Conservation District Regional Conservation Partnership Program (OCDRCPP) project manager for the Ottawa County Parks & Recreation Commission.

“The NRCS has a slew of conservation practices for specific resource concerns.”

Hoping to reach more farmers

OCDRCPP’s goals for 2023 include expanding its outreach efforts and enrolling more in its educational programs. Another program available to farmers who want cost-share assistance for conservation practices is the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. Deadline for this program is Dec. 2. Ottawa Conservation District staff members can help landowners identify which program best fits their needs.

A local farm field planted with a cover crop. Cover crops help control erosion, improve soil fertility, and can improve farmland productivity.
“We do a number of outreach events, field days and collaborations with partners to spread the word about soil health, conservation practices and holistic farm management,” says Svoboda. “Cost-share programs like the RCPP are not the end-all-be-all of agriculture conservation. We have so many resources to offer in the way of technical assistance, and we want to make sure we're connecting with as many farmers/landowners that we can.”

The way Davis sees it, OCDRCPP’s expert advice to help his bees thrive is a game-changer for his blueberry shrubs.

“For us, it’s about having the best bees,” Davis says. “We obviously want them acclimated to what’s going on in Michigan, to be at their best, robust and in peak health when they’re doing pollination. Our goal is to get the best pollination as we can. As an offshoot of the bee operation, you can also harvest the honey, so the pollen turns a pure cost center into a revenue center for us.”

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Read more articles by Paul R. Kopenkoskey.