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Sand County Foundation Receives Federal Funding to Foster New Farmer-led Watershed Groups

Sand County Foundation has been awarded $13.8 million in Regional Conservation Partnership Program funds to advance farmer-led water quality improvement.

The award from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service will allow Sand County Foundation to initiate farmer-led watershed groups across Illinois, and to bolster existing groups in Wisconsin and part of Iowa. The funding will provide incentives and technical assistance for a variety of farm conservation practices.

“A promising trend in agriculture is the growing enthusiasm by farmers to improve soil health, lower greenhouse gas emissions, sequester carbon and build agriculture’s resilience to climate change,” said Craig Ficenec, Sand County Foundation’s Senior Director - Agricultural Conservation.

The effort is inspired by the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection Producer-Led Watershed Protection Grant program, which requires a commitment by at least five farmers and a conservation partner within a specific watershed boundary. The farmers and partners design financial incentives and outreach/education activities based on local needs.

Currently 47 of these groups exist in Wisconsin, with demand far exceeding the annual program’s budget of $1 million. Several other states are considering similar approaches for state-funded watershed-based programs.

“This award will allow Sand County Foundation to build upon the success in Wisconsin, and support similar farmer-led groups in Illinois and Dubuque County, Iowa,” Ficenec said. “The mix of practices and the structure of financial incentives will vary according to the needs and preferences of each group.”

All groups will prioritize water quality through improved soil health, continuous living cover, and reducing erosion.

Sand County Foundation has also secured pledges for $4.5 million in cash and in-kind contributions from the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, Illinois Department of Agriculture, Association of Illinois Soil and Water Conservation Districts, Dubuque County Watersheds, and American Farmland Trust.

The project titled, “Advancing Farmer-Led Incentives in the Midwest” was one of 81 projects funded through the Regional Conservation Partnership Program in an unprecedented $1.1 billion investment in voluntary approaches to expand the reach of conservation efforts and climate-smart agriculture through public-private partnerships. For the full list of projects, click here.

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Sand County Foundation is a national nonprofit organization that inspires and empowers a growing number of land owners and managers to ethically care for the land in order to sustain water resources, build healthy soil, enhance wildlife habitat, and support outdoor recreation.