“Free Money!” ~ Q&A with NRCS Soil Conservationist, Ben Garland

Every week, we’ll be spotlighting a FarmsReach Featured Farmer or community Member.  Our Featured Farmers are brimming with great ideas and knowledge to share with the farming community, and our Members comprise a mix of farmers, ranchers, Extension Advisors, nonprofits, and more.  

Last week’s North Coast Farmers Guild monthly meet-up was another great night of delicious food, fun conversations and valuable connections.  After dinner, we heard from two presenters, one of which was Ben Garland, Soil Conservationist (and funder) at the Natural Resources Conservation Services (NRCS).


The NRCS grants funds to farmers and ranchers for a wide variety of uses – all of which support healthy ecosystems and long-term sustainability.  Last year, the CA NRCS offices had $3.5 million to grant to organic or transitioning farmers, but only $3 million was used.

How to access this untapped “Free Money”, as the Guild crowd called it?  Below we learn more about the NRCS funding programs and about Ben, a really nice guy who’s here to answer your questions!

FarmsReach: How did you get into funding farms via NRCS? What is your background?

Ben Garland: I am from a podunky town in the middle of Georgia and long story real short, I dropped out of a computer science program in college, joined the military, and went back to school and got a BS in Horticulture. During undergrad, I went abroad to Ecuador and Costa Rica where I studied sustainable and organic agriculture. In Costa Rica, I met a professor from North Carolina State University who was looking for a grad student to help with an organic strawberry research project. So, I got my MS in Crop Science from NCSU.

FR: What do you love most about your job?

BG: I truly love that I get to work with the wonderful farmers of Marin and Sonoma counties. They are the best farmers in the world — I am constantly in awe of the amazing things that they do for the land, the community, and themselves. Many farms I work with are run by only two people and I can’t believe all the things that they accomplish. I am inspired on a daily basis.

FR: We can read about NRCS online, but how would YOU describe what NRCS does and why it’s great for farmers?

NRCSCA01010BG: NRCS is great because it is the only agency that has a field office in almost every county. We are the “face of the USDA” for a lot of farmers. Our motto is “Helping Farmers Help the Land” and it’s true — we really are here to help. I always tell people, here’s a way to get some of your tax money back for doing the right thing. You earned it.

FR: What kind of funding do you offer? Where does the money/funding come from? How much money is granted to CA farmers each year?

BG:  Each year in CA we have tens of millions of dollars that go into various grant programs. Last year we had around $3.5 million for our organic initiative (for certified or transitioning farms), and we only had farmers asking for $3 million of that so we had to send $500,000 back to Washington D.C.

This is why I’ve been doing so much outreach. I hate to see the money go unspent when there are many farmers out there who need help but haven’t heard about NRCS yet or think it’s difficult to get the money.

FR: What kinds of farms or ranches do you fund, and generally what kinds of projects? How does being organic come into play?

BG: We do funding on all kinds of farms: Row crops, livestock, dairies, vineyards, orchards, nurseries. The only thing we don’t do is equine facilities because the government considers this to be recreation.

Being organic (or willing to transition) means that the payment rates [i.e., the percentage of farmers’ costs that NRCS will cover] are higher (because the government recognizes that organic farming is more expensive in general), and it also means that there is a special pool of money to get, so you are only competing with other organic farmers to get it.

And, as I said in the previous question, so far we have not had enough organic farmers asking for the money so we have had to send some back [to D.C. unused].

FR: At the Guild last week, there were a lot of questions about specifics. Can you share any more details?

BG: It’s hard to say. Each situation is different, and I always try to use my best judgment to make our government programs fit what people need. For instance, I have been able to help some permaculture farms even though that style of agriculture (which is awesome) is way ahead of the thinking in Washington D.C.

We don’t fund anything for residential use (like rainwater catchment — we can do it on a barn, but not on your house roof, and the end use must be agricultural). Unfortunately, we also do not do solar. A lot of farmers would love if NRCS could pay to put solar on their barns and use it to power their processing equipment, but we can’t. The best way to make that happen is to call your member of Congress and tell them you want NRCS to do rooftop solar for agricultural use.


The important thing to remember is that everything we fund must have a conservation benefit behind it, which could be soil health, erosion, water efficiency, wildlife habitat, etc. Since most NRCS employees are not farmers, we rely on you to tell us what you need, and how it will conserve resources, especially for things that are not obvious to non-farmers. It’s a team effort. You’re the expert, not us.

FR: How does the money disbursement work? What is the “cost share” program? What does it mean to “commit to contract”, etc.?

BG: We offer cost-share payments. Basically, we have published rates for each conservation activity (e.g. planting a cover crop is $62 to $185/acre depending on the scenario). This will go into a contract with the farmer, and once they do the activity, they will receive payment. So it’s pay as you go.

Every year, the western region of NRCS puts together a “Cost List” of various practices… e.g. cover crop, mulching, hoop house, irrigation upgrades, hedgerows, and so forth. These costs are supposed to cover the average expense of implementing that practice: material costs, delivery, labor, ongoing maintenance, etc. This is a fixed cost that is in your contract.

Once you do the work, your assigned NRCS planner (i.e. me) will come out, get the required documentation (usually a photo and copy of invoices), and sign off on payment. As part of the sign-up process, we have your direct deposit on file, so within two weeks the money will show up in your bank account.

Signing a contract means two main things: That you are committing to do certain conservation practices within a time period AND that, if you do them as required, NRCS is obligated to pay you (the money is set aside in advance).

FR: What would you say is the most common misunderstanding or misconception about NRCS (if any)?

BG: A few:

  • quoteBecause we are the government, people think we must be difficult to deal with and the whole process is a pain. The most difficult part is getting your farm registered with the Farm Service Agency (FSA) (not NRCS). Before you can go into contract with NRCS, FSA has to put you into their system. This can get difficult depending on how your business is structured (ie if the land is owned by a trust, etc.), but for 90% of customers, it is not too bad.
  • That we are regulatory and can come on your farm any time. We do not regulate anything. In fact, I do not even know anyone from EPA, Department of Fish and Game, the County Permit and Resource Management Department, or whoever else it is that people are worried about. We only come on your farm with your permission. We also never bring anyone else without asking in advance. For 95% of the people I work with, I am the only person from NRCS that will ever step foot on their property. We also don’t care if you’re growing marijuana — we just can’t help you upgrade the drip on it. 🙂
  • Although not about NRCS specifically, I hear a lot of misconceptions about getting certified organic. Everyone I know who is certified talks about how easy it is. I only hear bad things from folks who “heard something from someone” about how it’s “the government telling you how to run your farm”. My pitch is this: Would you be willing to maintain good records and pay $500 a year for certification if I could get you $20,000 in funding?
  • Lastly, I think people are scared of the unknown: What if their farm goes out of business? Will they have to pay money back? What if they move their farm to another location? Since we only pay you AFTER you do a conservation practice, there’s no worry that you will have to pay money back. We have ways of dealing with every situation. And we totally understand that things change in farming, so we are here to work with you.

FR: How would a farmer or rancher go about applying for an NRCS grant? What is the general process?


NRCS Service Areas & Office Locations

BG: There is an NRCS office in every county. Some exceptions are San Francisco county (no ag land) and Marin county — our office in Petaluma serves Marin.  I think every other county in California has their own office. There’s a locator on the NRCS website.

The process is:

1) Contact your local NRCS office and apply. The application is a quick 2-page form. This will be assigned to an NRCS planner like me.  Now is the time to do this. We have not been given deadlines yet but usually late November is the application deadline. Takes 5 minutes of your time to get your foot in the door. Our only stipulation is that you make at least $1,000 per year as farm income (or are a registered nonprofit) and have been farming at least a year.

2) Work with your planner to schedule a site visit. They will want to spend 2-3 hours at your farm, talking to you about what you do and what you need help with. They can also explain some of the finer details of the programs.

3) Once we get an idea of what you want to do, we can figure out if you are likely to be funded. If yes, you will have to register your farm with the Farm Service Agency (if you have never done so in the past — you only need to do it once). This can be the most difficult part of the process because they need several legal documents… The more organized you are, the better.

4) Lastly, your NRCS planner will be in touch with you to fine-tune the plan. This involves making sure everything is correct on the map… e.g. where the cover crop will go, how many acres you are planting, what the payment is, etc. Then we will make a contract out of it, go over it, and have you sign it. The whole “making the contract” thing on the NRCS end of things is what takes a lot of time for a variety of reasons.

Typically these 4 steps can be done in about 3-4 months. It depends how long you wait to apply. And, if we figure out early on that you won’t get funded, you won’t have to go through Steps 3 and 4, which take the longest amount of time by far. Whether or not someone gets funded changes every year based on the agency’s priorities. In general, the more you want to do, the better your chances. Pollinator and wildlife habitat are especially hot right now.

I tell people, if you apply in the next few months for the 2014 program year, don’t expect to get paid for anything until a year from now. We will be planning contracts to cover 2015, 2016, and 2017 production years (most contracts are for 3 years). And we can’t pay for anything you’ve already done, such as buy a hoop house last year…but we can help you buy another one next year!

Remember, I’m not only managing your application, but likely 40+ other applications, along with the 75 existing contracts I have… Patience is key.

FR: What regions do you cover?  Even if a farmer or rancher is not in your territory, why would you suggest they give you a ring or email?

BG: I cover Marin and Sonoma counties. I would recommend they give me a call because (especially for organic) there is sometimes confusion about what we can and can’t pay for. I can give people the know-how about what to say or do to get the conservation assistance they need from their local office.


Ready to answer your questions, Ben Garland

FR: Any other tips or thoughts you want to share with our farmer community?

BG: Just THANK YOU to all the farmers out there. I appreciate all of the hard work that you do. It means so much to me that you work late and get up early so I can buy your yummy food at the farmer’s market or eat it at a local restaurant. I feel so fortunate to be able to have a job where I can give something back and show my appreciation.

You can contact Ben at:
707-794-1242 x122

Petaluma NRCS office:
1301 Redwood Way Ste. 170
Petaluma, CA 94954-1109

Thank You to Ben for sharing this valuable info for our community!  To view a chart of all government funds available for CA farmers and ranchers, see our Federal & CA State Grants & Loans for Agriculture chart in our Business & Financial Planning Toolkit.

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