A new program from the federal Department of Agriculture could help launch more creative, innovative and collaborative conservation efforts in Kentucky, according to Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack.
The Regional Conservation Partnership Program, which will award $1.2 billion in grants over the next five years, is part of the 2014 Farm Bill passed in February. It is different than past programs because rather than investing in individual farmers, this program targets proposals from companies, universities, conservation groups, and communities to create a more inclusive conservation effort.
"Tell us what you need. Tell us what you would like to be able to do in large and small scale watershed areas and we will provide a partnership," Vilsack said in an interview. "Let's get conservation done in a more comprehensive and more planned way and let's spur innovation by making this competitive."
Because Kentucky is located in one of eight critical conservation areas, the Mississippi River Basin Area, proposals from Kentucky are eligible to compete in one of three categories: critical conservation areas, national and state.
According to Kentucky State Conservationist Karen Woodrich, water conservation will be the main focus of proposals coming from Kentucky.
"We've established a list of priorities specifically for Kentucky," Woodrich said. "Water quality, water conservation and soil erosion are some of our top priorities."
Woodrich expects that proposals from the state will involve existing state programs that could benefit from the funding.
"We're looking at utilizing our EQIP program (Environmental Quality Incentives Program) and our Conservation Stewardship Program, which are two of our most popular conservation efforts in Kentucky."
Along with improving the state's water quality, the regional program may also create jobs in Kentucky based on similar "test pilot" programs the government has conducted in the past.
"In Chesapeake Bay and the Upper Mississippi River Basin conservation activities did increase and in fact led to better water quality and better soil health," Vilsack said. "It also helped to create and support job growth in areas where conservation was being done since small contracting firms end up doing a lot of the work."
These smaller-scale test programs also suggest that the program may lead to involvement from larger businesses in Kentucky.
"I think you're going to see perhaps more engagement by corporate America than we have in the past," Vilsack said. "Food processing operations in the state of Kentucky might see this as a good opportunity to have a voice in conservation."
Preproposal applications are due on July 14. Vilsack said he would not be surprised if they receive hundreds of applications from across the country.
Woodrich said she is excited about potential ideas that might develop from the competition in Kentucky.
"I think the opportunities are endless and it really helps bring people together and put new ideas on the table," Woodrich said. "It helps us think outside the box and really focus on getting good conservation on the ground."