By Nate Brownlee, Co-Owner and Operator of Nightfall Farm
Here at Nightfall Farm, Liz and I are committed to farm in ways that conserve our natural resources, having rooted our business in the model of the triple bottom line—environmental, social, and financial. When I think back to the first season of our farm, I recall the immense differences we saw between working on an established farm, which we had done for years prior, and starting a farm from scratch. We were constantly trying to fit the lessons we learned working on other farms into the physical realities of our budding farm.
We quickly realized that we had to develop systems and infrastructure. We knew how we wanted to farm, but some of the pathways to success were an uphill battle without financial and technical assistance. Early in the summer of that first season, we were working hard. We had planted a cover crop mix into soybean stubble, yielding a diversity of forage that was growing well but sparse enough to require quick moves through our rotations. We had selected for biomass, so the plentiful plant matter was making it difficult to keep a charge on our temporary electric netting and solar energizer. And we were hauling water from the well at our home place to our pasture, which is a little more than a quarter mile away.
It takes a lot to get a farm off of the ground—financially, intellectually, and physically. Liz and I didn’t have much in the way of finances, though we did have a lot of knowledge, experience, and muscle. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) helped our farm in all three of these aspects. When our application was accepted, we qualified for the beginning farmer cost-share rate. This higher rate put infrastructure, assistance, and efficiency within our reach.
The conservation program promotes and rewards practices that “lead to cleaner water and air, healthier soil and better wildlife habitat, all while improving agricultural operations.” EQIP is well-designed; conservation practices are an easy sell when they are tied in with improving your farm operation. We both win: NRCS (and the American public) secures a rotationally grazed perennial field that abuts the river, leading to less runoff and soil erosion into the river. We get help that allows us to do a better job farming.
Our EQIP practices helped us to establish a perennial pasture, including advice on species composition. We put in a high tensile fence, which more reliably moved electricity around our pasture to our paddocks. We received an incentive payment to follow a rotational grazing plan that aligned with our own management goals and systems. And we put in a well, complete with a pipeline and several hydrants that allow us to access water anywhere in our field, which is necessary for good rotational grazing practices.
I think about EQIP every day. I’m writing about EQIP today because it’s time for our next farm bill to be written into law. This one, gigantic bill has huge effects all across our country. Ours would not be a viable farm without the support of NRCS and EQIP. And we’re not the only one—farms across the country are using hoop houses to supply restaurants, farms are planting trees in regularly flooded fields, and covers crops are protecting soil in between annual crops. EQIP is just one piece of the farm bill, but it is a good example of the many essential programs that draw funding—and have to compete for funding—in an important omnibus bill.
We’ll be advocating that Congress fully funds EQIP, keeps higher payment rates for beginning farmers, and adds funding to other programs like USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program, which encourages (and incentivizes) farmers to remove environmentally sensitive land from agricultural production. Why? Because EQIP has made the difference on our farm. The program helped us turn a monoculture, rented field into a diverse, flourishing family farm. We can’t wait to see EQIP help other young farmers as we transform communities nationwide.
Nate Brownlee is a first-generation farmers and has been involved in agriculture since 2009. He has sheared sheep in Maine, cared for cattle in New York and slaughtered chickens in Vermont. He has worked on vegetable farms, but prefers to spend his time caring for and working with animals in a pasture. He and his wife Liz co-own and operate Nightfall Farm, where they pasture-raise chickens, pigs, lambs, and turkeys.