Newton County Indiana Farm Service Agency Helps to Protect Communities Drinking Water

By Toby Days, Alliance of Indiana Rural Water Source Water Specialist

Did you hear the one where the farmer walked into the FSA office?

 It’s a good one, let me share:

One day Mr. Johnson walked into the Newton County, Indiana Farm Service Agency (FSA) to report his yearly cropping reports for his farm.  While there the Newton County FSA staff informed Mr. Johnson that he had land in the Town of Morocco’s Wellhead Protection Area (WHPA) and introduced him to the Conservation Reserve Program that was available in WHPAs.  The benefits of the program (annual payments, reduce soil erosion, enhanced wildlife habitat and protect drinking water sources) was enticing enough that Mr. Johnson signed up for the program.

As we gain more and more insight into the complex nature of the interaction between our drinking water sources and land use practices, we begin to learn more about effective tools for implementing drinking water protection.  Particularly in areas where a community water supply has the potential to be impacted by nitrates, we must pay close attention to all land uses that have the potential to contribute nitrates to the identified ground and surface waters. Examples of typical land uses to be considered include on-site septic systems, rural and urban turf management, agricultural cropping practices and irrigation.

Of the many issues that must be addressed in Wellhead Protection Area, agricultural land uses often become a major concern. There are many effective methods for helping the agricultural community manage land uses in an environmentally friendly manner. One such program is the Conservation Reserve Program.  The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) is administered by the United States Department of Agriculture-Farm Service Agency and provides technical and financial assistance to eligible farmers and ranchers to address soil, water, and related natural resource concerns on their lands in an environmentally beneficial and cost-effective manner. It encourages farmers to convert highly erodible cropland or other environmentally sensitive acreage to vegetative cover, such as tame or native grasses, wildlife plantings, trees, filterstrips, or riparian buffers. Farmers receive an annual rental payment for the term of the multi-year contract. In addition, there is cost sharing provided to establish the vegetative cover practices.  The Conservation Reserve Program reduces soil erosion, protects the Nation’s ability to produce food and fiber, reduces sedimentation in streams and lakes, improves water quality, establishes wildlife habitat, and enhances forest and wetland resources.

There is a lot of cropland in Indiana that is eligible for the CRP program, however, cropland within WHPAs are eligible for continuous sign-up and have extra incentives for producers that enroll.  It was no accident that Mr. Johnson was introduced to the CRP program when he came into the FSA office.  The Newton County FSA staff has worked hard on developing a cost effective and efficient way to get the word out about the CRP program to producers in their County.

Carol Ritchie, Newton County’s Farm Service Agency Executive Director, has worked tirelessly to identify all crop producers in the county that have cropland within WHPAs.  Mrs. Ritchie has made up folders for each producer that has land in a WHPA.  Each folder contains a map of an individual producer’s land that is eligible for the CRP Program.  As producers come in annually to report their cropping information for the year, Mrs. Ritchie and her staff are able to pull out that producer’s folder of land that is eligible for the CRP program and explain the benefits of the program to them right there and then.  Having information ready and available for the producers to see which tracts of their land is CRP eligible, not only saves time but provides that producer with a reassuring feeling that this program was handpicked for their specific parcel because of the benefit not only to the producer, but to their community as well.

Due to the hard work of the staff at the Newton County FSA office, over 30 acres of cropland in The Town of Morocco’s WHPA have been taken out of crop production and put into native vegetation. This will reduce the annual application of nitrogen fertilizer by 5500 lbs, Atrazine by 32 lbs, and Roundup by 6 gallons on this land.  The vegetative cover will also act as a buffer to prevent the tons of sediment erosion that runs off this land each year into nearby waterways. The reduction of chemicals applied and erosion will have a dramatic improvement in the water quality of this area.

The efforts of the Newton County FSA office has brought together three entities that normally don’t work together to achieve a common goal, to improve water quality.  The FSA (agency) worked with a Mr. Johnson (landowner) to get land enrolled in the CRP program,  Mr. Johnson converted his land to vegetative cover and provided information about his land to Morocco Water Department (Town) so that they could update their WHP plan’s landuse and potential contamination sources inventories.

Indiana is blessed to have vast amounts of deep fertile soils and many of our WHPAs have agricultural landuse activities within them.  The County FSA office are great partners for water systems to work with on educating the agricultural community in WHPAs about the many things they can do to help you protect a communities drinking water sources.

For more information, please contact Toby Days of the Alliance of Indiana Rural Water at tdays@inh2o.org or 317-789-4200.

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