Do you own farmland that would benefit from improved soil health, water quality and wildlife habitat? On-farm conservation can sustain agricultural productivity while achieving a range of environmental benefits. Learn how to understand the natural resources on your land and take action to protect them.
Improve On-Farm Conservation
Understand Your Land
One of the first steps toward improving your land is to understand the importance of soil health and the ways to improve it. After that, take an inventory of your land and its resources and connect with a conservation specialist because together you’ll choose the best set of uses and management practices for your land.
Learn About Soil Health
Maintaining healthy soils can reduce a farmer’s production costs and improve profits while also helping the land sequester more carbon, increase water infiltration and improve wildlife and pollinator habitat. Learn about the importance of soil health and the variety of farm practices that can help improve the soil. The key principles of soil health include:
- Minimize disturbance
- Maximize soil cover
- Maximize biodiversity
- Maximize presence of living roots
- Your Land, Your Soil, Your Investment, Your Family
- Principles for High Functioning Soils
- Healthy, Productive Soils Checklist for Growers
- Farming in the 21st Century: A Practical Approach to Improve Soil Health
- Applying Soil Health Management Systems to Reduce Climate and Weather Risks in the Northwest
- Farmer Case Studies in Soil Health
Assess Your Land
Taking stock of your land’s agricultural use and farm infrastructure is an important step in developing meaningful conservation goals. Use a land inventory checklist to assess what is happening on your farm now and document your positive assets and any issue concerns.
County and municipal offices have maps and photos, and information on local comprehensive/master plans and other community plans; zoning maps; ordinances, zoning and local policies that affect agriculture. Some information may be available online, but it is also a good idea to visit in person.
Google Earth provides recent and past satellite imagery of Earth. The NRCS Climate Center provides information about climate patterns, water and soil moisture conditions. The Web Soil Survey (WSS) provides soil data and information produced by the National Cooperative Soil Survey. Soil surveys can be used for general farm, local, and wider area planning. The Plant Hardiness Zones Map in a nationwide, interactive map that enables users to find their own plant hardiness zone.
Think About Goals
Once you have a better understanding of your land’s resources and concerns, then write down your vision and goals. Use the Goal Setting Worksheet below to help you collect your thoughts and begin to formulate a plan for your land. The worksheet also serves as a useful tool to start the conversation about conservation with your family, farmer tenants, and conservation agency staff.Goal Setting Worksheet
Develop Your Plan
A conservation plan is a tool designed to help farmers and ranchers manage the natural resources on their farm. Reach out to a conservation specialist who will meet with you to discuss your goals for your land and help you create a plan to address natural resource conditions. The options you choose, which can range from practices to support pollinator and wildlife habitats to crop rotations and water control structures, and the time-line for their implementation become the plan.
Find a Conservation Specialist
Staff at federal or state conservation agencies can help you create and implement your conservation plan. To enroll your land in any federal conservation program, you first need to find out if your land has a “farm number”, or if not get a farm number through the USDA Farm Service Agency. If you have participated in USDA programs in the past, you may have records already established that identify the parcels you own and/or farm and other farm information.
USDA Farm Service Agency
Farm Service Agency offices are often co-located with USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service offices. These offices are called Service Centers and have locations in almost every county across the country. You can make an appointment with your local Service Center to get the relevant forms and receive assistance completing them. When making your appointment, ask Farm Service Agency staff what documentation you should bring with you in order to streamline the process. Use the Farm Service Agency Directory to find an office near you.
USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service
NRCS conservationists offer direct, personal assistance including help developing and implementing conservation plans. Find a USDA Service Center near you.
Conservation District staff can give you maps and help you evaluate soils and develop conservation plans. Visit the Conservation District Directory to find an office near you.
The Cooperative Extension System can test soil samples and assist with writing an agricultural lease, and they are knowledgeable about local agriculture. Find a Cooperative Extension office near you.
Implement Your Plan
A state or federal conservation program can provide financial and technical assistance to help bring your conservation plan into practice. Federal programs are typically administered by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, while state programs may be administered by state departments of natural resources or state departments of agriculture through soil and water conservation districts.
Find Financial Assistance
The USDA offers a variety of conservation programs to assist private landowners with natural resource concerns.
Agricultural Conservation Easement Program
The Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) provides technical and financial assistance to help conserve and protect farm and ranch lands, grasslands and wetlands. Under the Wetlands Reserve Easements component, NRCS works directly with landowners to restore, protect and enhance enrolled wetlands. Enrolled land is not available for production. Visit the ACEP program page.
Conservation Reserve Program
The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) encourages farmers to convert highly erodible cropland and other environmentally sensitive land to vegetative cover including native grasses, trees, filter strips, habitat buffers or riparian buffers. CRP is administered by the USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA). Visit the CRP program page.
Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program
A variation of the CRP, the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) helps farmers protect environmentally sensitive land, decrease erosion, restore wildlife habitat and safeguard ground and surface water. This program is also administered by the USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA). Visit the CREP program page.
Conservation Stewardship Program
The Conservation Stewardship Program offers technical and financial assistance to help agricultural and forest producers take their conservation efforts to the next level. The program is designed to compensate agricultural and forest producers who agree to increase their level of conservation by adopting additional conservation activities and maintaining their baseline level of conservation. CSP is for producers who are passionate about conservation and environmental stewardship. Visit the CSP program page.
Environmental Quality Incentives Program
The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) provides financial and technical assistance through contracts to help plan and implement structural and management practices on eligible agricultural land. Contracts address natural resource concerns and opportunities to improve soil, water, plant, animal, air and related resources. EQIP can help producers meet environmental regulations. EQIP is administered by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Visit the EQIP program page.
USDA Climate Hubs
USDA Climate Hubs and their partners developed locally-specific tools and resources to help build climate change adaptation capacity across the country. USDA’s Climate Hubs are a unique collaboration across the department’s agencies. They are led and hosted by the Agricultural Research Service and Forest Service located at ten regional locations, with contributions from many agencies including the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Farm Service Agency, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, and the Risk Management Agency. The Climate Hubs link USDA research and program agencies in their regional delivery of timely and authoritative tools and information to agricultural producers and professionals. Find your Regional Hub.
Many states offer cost share funds to apply conservation practices. These programs may be administered by state departments of natural resources or state departments of agriculture through soil and water conservation districts. A good place to start is your USDA service center. Staff will be aware of applicable state programs. Find a USDA Service Center near you.
The Soil Health Institute compiled a list of state agencies and universities that offer resources or financial incentives to improve soil health. Visit the list of Soil Health Resources and look for your state.