Federal money set for organic, transitioning farms
By JOHN O'CONNELL
Despite Eastern Idaho's short growing season, Mickey Theil and her husband Keith Young, of Firth, expect to have heirloom tomatoes ready for their customers early this year, with production continuing late into fall.
With assistance from a Natural Resources Conservation Service program that assists organic farms, they've purchased a hoophouse, a structure like a greenhouse but without heat.
The NRCS Organic Initiative -- which assists growers of all sizes who have organic certification or are transitioning to organic farming -- has two dates remaining this year when applications will be ranked, March 30 and June 1.
The couple's hobby business, Folderol Farm, produces fruits and vegetables for sale at the Idaho Falls growers' market, where several family members also sell produce.
Young has found the trick to organic production is "mostly a matter of paying attention to what you're buying and keeping good records."
In Idaho, the Organic Initiative, operated under the federal Environmental Quality Incentives Program, has $460,000 available for 2012 projects, to be split evenly among certified organic and transitioning farms.
"Most of our participants are a lot smaller in acreage, less than 10 acres," said Ron Brooks, who oversees EQIP in Idaho.
Livestock producers involved in the program tend to have the most acres enrolled, he said.
Brooks said applicants are surveyed, and potential resource problems on their farms are identified. They receive more points if their projects address soil erosion, soil health, water efficiency, air quality and other resource challenges. For example, an organic farmer may opt to plant a cover crop to help with erosion, add nitrogen to the soil, or control pests or weeds.
The program pays a different rate for each practice. Cover crops, for example, pay $53 to $89 per acre, depending on the reason for planting them.
Idaho's Organic Initiative started in 2010 with 14 contracts, eight to certified organic growers and six to those making the transition. In 2011, Idaho had 33 contracts, 18 to certified growers and 15 for transitional growers.
During the first scoring period this year, only two grower applications were accepted. Brooks explained the federal government had raised the minimum score but has lowered it for the next two scoring periods.
"There were a lot of unfunded applications. We should see numbers picking up a little bit," Brooks said.