Will Hehemann | School of Agriculture, Fisheries and Humanities
Socially disadvantaged farmers in Arkansas benefit from a decades-old partnership between the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff (UAPB) and the United States Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), says Charley Williams, UAPB alumnus and NRCS soil conservation veteran. . This cooperation helps empower a wide range of producers in the state, including those with limited financial resources, those new to farming, and veteran and minority women, farmers or herders.
“The cooperation between the UAPB and the NRCS started a long time ago,” Williams said. “UAPB began inviting NRCS staff to its annual Rural Life Conference to share important information about USDA programs with socially disadvantaged small farmers.”
The partnership between the 1890 Land Grant University and the USDA agency is mutually beneficial, Williams said.
“The NRCS wants to disseminate timely information to the public and provide resources to farmers and landowners to help with conservation,” he said. “UAPB wants to help socially disadvantaged farmers apply conservation practices to their land so that their operations are more sustainable and profitable. So it makes sense for these two entities to work together to reach minority farmers – a group that has historically been underserved by USDA programs in the past.
In addition to bolstering conservation efforts, this partnership also has a positive effect on growers’ bottom line, Williams said. The official mission of the NRCS is “to help people help the earth”. However, he said it is important to add to this statement when thinking about outreach to small-scale producers.
“We at the UAPB Smallholder Farming Program like to say that our mission is ‘to help people help the land to help people,'” he said. “It is important that small farmers realize that by taking advantage of conservation programs, they will not only benefit from their land, but they will also contribute to their own economic prosperity. »
Provide direct support to producers
Williams said the partnership between the UAPB and NRCS gained momentum in 2010 when he was named coordinator of the Arkansas StrikeForce initiative, a project that aims to implement effective conservation and housing in poor communities and helping residents access agricultural loans.
“We were tasked with increasing the participation of socially disadvantaged farmers in USDA programs, and we had to show our progress,” Williams said. “As a graduate of UAPB, I got in touch with UAPB’s Smallholder Farmer Program Manager, Dr. Henry English. I told Dr. English that this could be a potential grant opportunity – UAPB could receive funds to help small farmers apply for USDA funds.
Dr. English saw the potential in Williams’ vision. And in discussions with NRCS program coordinators, Williams explained that the UAPB could essentially act as a “technical service provider” on behalf of the agency.
It was at this time that NRCS began training UAPB extension staff to help growers apply for the NRCS Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP). Financial assistance from EQIP enables producers to install conservation practices in areas such as improving irrigation efficiency, promoting soil health or restoring pasture on their farm or their ranch. In some cases, access to assistance has helped producers keep their family farms in business.
“We are now at the point where UAPB has a workforce of NRCS-trained associates who are able to connect smallholder farmers to new NRCS initiatives – everything from installing elevated tunnels irrigation and water management,” he said. “We have a staff that includes trained foresters, conservationists and retired NRCS staff – everyone knows EQIP like the back of their hand. This is our silver bullet for success.
UAPB’s ability to directly help transform its clients’ operations for the better was greatly enhanced when the university launched the “Keeping it in the Family” sustainable forestry and African-American land retention program in 2016, Williams said. The program provides educational resources and technical assistance to African American forest owners to protect and conserve their family lands for future generations.
“UAPB’s Keeping it in the Family program has shown so much promise in terms of the number of people it could benefit, that it has been given its own NRCS funding code,” he said. “This means that the people we provide outreach services to can obtain forest management plans and be approved for EQIP cost-share funding much faster than usual. This has been a game changer – we are now seeing record numbers in terms of EQIP applications, the amount of EQIP funding given to farmers and the number of people served.
Williams said he believed he was just a spokesperson for NRCS and EQIP. But now, he says, he and other members of the UAPB smallholder farming program team feel empowered to take direct action to get farmers to implement conservation practices.
“When a new owner approaches us, we find out how they operate and what their goals are, and then we visit the site as a team,” he said. “Experts from the Arkansas Department of Agriculture – Forestry Division come with us and write a forest management plan for the landowner. Now this landowner basically has a roadmap for how to apply conservation practices on his land. »
Serve as a model for other institutions
Williams said UAPB’s success in reaching socially disadvantaged producers has drawn the attention of other state and regional institutions and organizations. Recently, he and Dr. English participated in planning sessions hosted by universities and agencies in hopes of starting projects similar to UAPB’s Keeping it in the Family program.
“Other than the UAPB, no other group has such a strong connection to the state’s socially disadvantaged farmers,” Williams said. “Our team members have the background and character to earn the trust of growers who have never participated in USDA programs before. It takes a special personality to look these farmers in the face and tell them that the USDA is going to help them develop their land, not take it away.
Williams said distrust of USDA programs is still an issue among minority and resource-constrained growers. And some producers think that EQIP and other programs offered by the US Farm Bill are “free programs”.
“But it’s not,” he said. “I tell producers that these programs are funded through their own taxes. Since they have already contributed to these programs, why not take advantage of them? I remind them that this is a partnership – the USDA wants to partner with you to keep your land productive.
Williams said there’s also a cliché among USDA agencies that minority and resource-constrained audiences are hard to reach and contact.
“I always tell them, ‘Give me the phone – give them my number,'” he said. “In our work, we have to remember that we are working with a group that has been left out for a long time. Of course, connecting with them may take some effort, but it is possible. The success of the UAPB small farm program in transforming the operations and lives of so many Arkansas farmers is proof of that.
The University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff offers all of its outreach and research programs and services without regard to race, color, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, national origin, religion , age, disability, marital or veteran status, genetic information, or other legally protected status, and is an Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity Employer.