The process to getting our pollinator habitat project funded has been a slow and winding road. Below outlines our journey.
Winter 2014/2015 - We have been living on an 80 acre parcel that is in corn/ soy rotation. Some of the land is fine for crops, but a large portion is less than ideal for farming. There is a large sand hill, and a big muck area that doesn't dry out. Bob, the farmer/landowner mentioned that it might not be worth it for him to keep farming those areas, and I asked him if I could put them into conservation. He agreed, and we are working to put a 24 acre parcel into habitat for the bees.
January 2015 - I contacted my local Farm Service Agency (FSA) office in Jackson County to inquire about federal assistance programs for pollinators and restoration. Our farm was already registered at the FSA, because we are currently enrolled in the Emergency Livestock Assistance Program (ELAP). The FSA gave me the information for the District Conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation District (Adam).
April 2015 - After no response from my inquiry with NRCS, I followed up. This time I received a response. I was sent the general information (that I already had) about the pollinator programs: This link to NRCS programs, and this Fact Sheet on Honey Bees.
April 15 - Adam the District Conservationist came out to view the property, and to map the part of the property that would be enrolled in the program. I filled out the program application and turned it in with a W-4. Later I found out that we were registered at the FSA as an entity, and not as an individual, so I had to redo the application as the entity. This saved us a lot of time because we were in the USDA system, but it did require a few more steps later on. We already had a lease on file for the property, but we would have to register for a DUN and SAMS number.
April 29, 2016 - Filled out CCC-860 - Socially Disadvantaged, limited resources, and beginning farmer or rancher certification - Check, check, and check!
End of April - Early May 2015 - Fill out paperwork for DUN number and SAMS number to receive federal funding. Information for Farm Bill Program Applicants & Contractors Using an Employer Identification Number. This was a big pain, and took a long time. Apparently something was spelled wrong on an IRS document somewhere, and it took a while to track down the inconsistency.
May 2015 - Received confirmation that our application was uploaded and in the system, but that we had to fill out a new FSA form AD1026 (saying that we are not clearing or draining wetland or highly erodible land). We filled that out and received the first part of the conservation plan - a map of the project site.
At this point we asked about what should be done with the fields for this year. We were told that we shouldn't plant (beans), because there would be a chance for fall installation of our habitat. This information was not quite correct. While it makes sense in some cases to plant in the fall, the funding would not be available by then (and you can't do anything until everything is approved). We later were informed that putting it into beans would have been ideal, because it would have kept weeds down, with little organic matter. Instead, it sat fallow for 2015.
May 11, 2015 - We found out that the District Conservationist got a new job, and was leaving the NRCS. Our field office would now be covered by someone in a different county until the position was filled. We were told that 'If you haven't heard from anyone by the end of next week to start calling regularly to make sure that however is here next will follow through on your application'.
June 9, 2015 - Our district was covered by Linda from Ingham County. Apparently the paper work for the site visit wasn't completed, or in the file, so she scheduled a second site visit with us. She began working on our Conservation Plan, but had software issues, so it wasn't ready.
June 2015 - We received a control of land form to have Bob, the landowner sign. He had given us permission to do the work, but since we are applying through our business, we had to demonstrate that we would operate the land for the lifespan of the program (3-5 years).
We also received the great guidance document about Pollinator Habitat for Michigan. If you are thinking about putting in pollinator habitat, take the time to read this document.
At this time, Linda is filling out paperwork that will rank our project. Since there is limited funding available, priority goes to projects, based on certain selection criteria. We had to confirm things including that we would use 100% native seeds, and that we would have at least 6 native wildflowers in the mix. This gave us higher ranking (greater chance of funding), but means that our seed will be more expensive, and it limits what we can put in. I asked about putting in a cover crop or something that would bloom early, since it often takes a few years for the native plants to get established enough to bloom, and was advised against it, because they didn't want competition for the natives. There are some mixes that have earlier forbs, and I am going to look into this further, because I really want some instant gratification.
June 15, 2015 - We received our ranking summary. We received a final ranking score of 520.68, which I guess is pretty good, since we got the funding eventually. We were only asked two questions (above about it), so I was a little surprised to see how it was filled out. Some of the things were wrong. For example, it listed that honey bee forage would be available for late-bloom, but would not be available for early or mid bloom (which was not true - we are planning for season long blooming). It also stated that there was no written agreement for the beekeeper to keep the hives on the property for the duration of the project. I didn't follow up, because it didn't make a difference in our case.
We also received our Conservation Plan. As you can see from the document, this isn't an implementation plan, but a statement that we are going to put the specific parcels into the program. Objective: 'Enhance property by creating a Pollinator Habitat with a flower-rich habitat that supports native and / or managed pollinators.'
Program - Conservation Cover (327) - Native Grasses and Wildflowers will be established on the identified field to encourage and support a diverse group of pollinators. Seeding mix will include greater than 4 honey bee forage species. This was split into 2 parcels, an 8.6 acre dry site (the Sand Hill), and a 15.3 acre wet site.
The conservation plan says - for detailed information on practice establishment and management, including the amount of seed, lime, fertilizer, etc needed, please see the attached Job Sheet. There was no attached job sheet, and this would prove elusive.
There is a rolling admission to the program, but there are certain dates that the applications have to be finalized to get funding during a particular cycle. We were first told that this was May 15th, but we were then told that it was June 19th - our communications at this point were a bit frantic, as I was trying to sign and return paperwork in rapid succession. At this point, I am still having trouble getting the SAM number. It turns out that I should have had my SSN rather than the EIN in one spot, and it kept getting rejected. There was a little more hassle applying as an entity rather than an individual, and I'm not sure that the time saved up front at the FSA was worth it.
June 27, 2015 - Received from firstname.lastname@example.org - Congratulations! you have successfully completed the registration process in the U.S. federal government's System for Awards Management (SAM). Of course this means we still have to wait for the actual SAM number...
It arrived a few days later, and at this point, I am under the impression that we are totally good to go.
August 20, 2015 - We received pre-approval as a high priority request (whatever that means), and 2 more documents that had to completed with original copies mailed back to the FSA in Jackson ASAP. CCC-941 - Average Adjusted Gross Income Certification and Consent to Disclosure of Tax Information. Basically we have to show that the business and ourselves made less than 900,000, and be able to prove it. No problem there. Linda informed us that she is covering another district, and working out of Caro.
September 4, 2015 - Congratulations! Your application has been marked 'Approved.'
There were three more documents to fill out and sign (and return originals by Friday) - CPA 1202, CPA 1155 (and an appendix). These documents were our contracts - over 30 pages indicating the practices and timing that would allow us to receive funding for the project. I accidentally didn't attach the appendix when I mailed them back. Rather than just allowing me to send the appendix, however, I had to fill out all of the documents again, because they had to have the same date. At this point I didn't have time to mail them back in time for the Friday due date, so I had to drive them there in person. Turns out that they were just going to scan them anyway.....
September 23rd - received a phone message and email that they couldn't find my contract. They were worried that they missed it, because of 'staffing inconsistencies'. Informed that we are now covered by the Jonesville Service Center, and can work with Jason, the DC there.
September 25, 2015 - Due date for the contract. All the pages were signed, and dates in alignment for the great event.
October 6, 2015 - I contacted the Jonesville office, because I still had not received job sheets. When Jason, the new DC covering my case, looked at my file, there was no indication of the previous (2!) site visits. He set up an appointment to come out and view the site.
February 2016 - Dex is now the new NRCS staffer in Jackson County. Welcome Dex!
March 3, 2016 - Job Sheets! I went in to the state NRCS office to discuss pollinator habitat programs. I mentioned that I still didn't have job sheets, and Rebecca was able to find my file and send them the next day. Pays to go straight to the top, sometimes.