Federal funding helped Tom Jacobs undertake conservation projects at his Mount Vernon cattle farm, projects that likely wouldn’t have taken place without it.

Jacobs said he has received funding from the United States Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service to do ditching and culvert work, control erosion in fields and fence off areas of his property so his cattle don’t contaminate soil and water with their waste. He said without the funds, he “never would’ve even done” the projects because the cost would be too great and his bottom line is already precarious.

“You’ve got to have that help or you wouldn’t be able to do those projects,” he said.

On Tuesday, a working group made up of about 20 farmers, foresters and interested parties who own land in Lincoln and Kennebec counties recommended keeping funding levels for fiscal year 2021 the same as the current fiscal year 2020. The meeting was led by NRCS District Conservationist Peter Abello and took place at the Whitefield Fire and Rescue building.

Attendees spoke for a little more than two hours, eventually coming to a consensus that last year’s funding percentages were adequate. For fiscal year 2021, 65% of funds will go to projects related to animal waste, 18% will go to forestry-related projects, 10% will go to soil health-related projects and 7% will go to projects related to invasive species.

In addition to Jacobs, other local farmers also stressed these funds are critical to helping maintain their soil and water quality.

Nanne Kennedy, who raises Polwarth sheep at Meadowcroft Farm in Washington, said funds helped her construct an above-ground watering system for her animals, which keeps them away from streams that they could potentially disturb.

Kennedy, who attended Tuesday’s meeting as part of the working group, said she has gotten help through this program for more than 30 years for a handful of projects.

Fencing around a pond Wednesday at Jacobs Cattle Farm in Mount Vernon was funded, in part, by U.S. Department of Agriculture funds. Kennebec Journal photo by Andy Molloy

While Kennedy’s farm is in Knox county, she is an interested party to Tuesday’s discussion because she owns a 60-acre wood lot in Nobleboro, located in Lincoln County.

Kennedy said the program is critical for helping farmers be good stewards of the land by taking care of soil and water sources, calling it “regenerative farming.” She noted the program’s funds don’t cover all project costs, and the farmers and foresters still need to make big investments — which also provide money for local businesses and contractors — to carry out plans.

While Kennedy said the program was critical for helping local farms, she thought it could go further to help the farmer, who she said is the “human resource” that goes largely unnoticed compared to other resources under the federal program. She said she would like to see a retirement or health insurance program for farmers so they “don’t have to die” on their farms.

“This program is talking about resource concerns, but it doesn’t address the human resource concern,” Kennedy said. “That hasn’t been factored into the program. I pray someday it will be.”

Because funding is not set each year, the local field offices use input from working groups to determine what percentage of the total funding each project type will receive. The local working group does not vote or have decision-making authority over the fund, but their input guides Abello’s final decision.

“You could deliver these programs in a bubble and not get any input from the outside,” Abello said. “It’s valuable (to get input from) the land-owners who are professionals in the field. I’m not a forester; I’m not a biologist, so it’s really helpful.”

He said the state received around $10 million to $11 million in funding from the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, which is a cost-sharing program for conservation projects. The first portion of that funding goes to statewide conservation initiatives that are recommended by the State Technical Committee, which functions as a statewide-version of the local working groups. After that portion is expended, local field offices receive funds based on need. Abello said about $5 million to $6 million was allocated to Maine’s 14 local field offices last year.

Abello said the Augusta field office — which hands out funding for Kennebec and Lincoln county — received $1.3 million this fiscal year. He said 60 projects were funded with the $1.3 million given to the Augusta field office in the current year.

The field office uses a system of questions to grade the importance of projects and uses that data to pick projects, he said. One of the meeting’s attendees offered the idea to include a way to measure a soil’s potential for a proposed project seeking funding. Abello said he would meet with the member of the working group to discuss that idea before discussing its potential implementation in the Augusta field office’s decision-making process.

Hildy Ellis, a member of the working group and the program manager for the Knox and Lincoln County Soil and Water Conservation District, said she supported the working group’s consensus. She praised Abello as a “responsive” leader and the working group as “vibrant” and “vital.”

The working group also made recommendations for areas to change or regions in the state that may benefit from other USDA programs, including Farmable Wetland and Soil Health and Income Protection Program funding.

Abello said he has until April to submit his recommendations to the state.

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