Small dairies in western Maryland and Virginia will likely benefit from a $4.57 million grant from the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Regional Conservation Partnership Program.

“Most of the funding is going to Maryland,” said Blaine Delaney, watershed program director in Virginia. “In Virginia, six to eight small dairies will receive some funds for implementation but it is a goal to help dairies with their nutrient management planning.

“Part of that is where the matching funds came from and that is why there are more funds targeted to Maryland,” Delaney added. “We haven’t finalized the agreement yet with Sustainable Chesapeake but we hope that a combination of some of the money will go for NRCS staff to hire at least one person in Virginia. However, all of these details have not been worked out.”

The Maryland Department of Agriculture is the primary partner providing matching funds. According to Terron Hillsman, NRCS conservationist for Maryland and District of Columbia, one of their priorities is helping dairy farmers in the western part of the state with waste storage.

According to the NRCS website, the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, or RCPP, promotes coordination between NRCS and its partners to deliver conservation assistance to producers and landowners.

The NRCS implements RCPP conservation program contracts and easement agreements through four existing NRCS programs: the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, the Conservation Stewardship Program and the Healthy Forests Reserve Program.

RCPP projects receive money through three separate pools: state projects, national projects and projects in areas classified Critical Conservation Areas, of which the the Chesapeake Bay watershed is included.

Kristen Hughes Evans, executive director of Sustainable Chesapeake, a partner in this grant funding, said the grant will focus, in part, on nutrient management plan writing as “some farmers are facing some strict new rules.” Some of the money will also go toward putting best management practices on the ground.

She said Sustainable Chesapeake will work with NRCS on reporting and documenting how the grant money is being used.

“The Regional Conservation Partnership Program has some of the details to be worked out with the lead partner, Sustainable Chesapeake. Virginia is the lead partner on engaging the small producers,” Hillsman said. “They will be working with them to have lots of conversations to come up with the financial assistance between the two states. That is happening right now.”

Hillsman said there is a backlog of farmers in Maryland who have already made an application for practices to put on the ground.

“Each RCPP project is specific to a region or watershed and includes practices that are very specific. We have to make a determination if this specific RCPP project can come from this or another source of money due to restrictions on the funds,” he said. “Our field office staff evaluates whether a producer can use RCPP or will they use another pool of money that we have. This is the third year we have received money from RCPP.”

There are many different types of projects this money can be used for, from erosion control to species habitat.

“This focus is for small dairy farmers in Frederick, Washington and Carroll counties, and most focus on animal waste,” Hillsman said. “We don’t have a definition of a small dairy farmer and it depends on who you talk to. RCPP is just a program that allows partners to provide more leverage and financial resources for a project.

“Farmers still have to come in and we work with them to come up with a conservation plan. That is the foundation of these contracts as it will show what needs to be done and when it will be done. We use that plan as a contract for access to the funds.”

He said NCRS has invested $25 million in Maryland to accelerate the number of conservation practices on the ground.

Delaney said funds will be used primarily in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.

“Our staff will work outreach to the farmers to see who wishes to apply,” Delaney said.

Rick Hemphill is a freelance writer covering western Maryland and Northern Virginia.