After his 44-year career with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Charley Williams, a soil conservation veteran and alumnus of the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, shows no signs of slowing down in his career.
He continues to serve small-scale and underserved farmers in Arkansas, introducing them to US Department of Agriculture programs that improve their lands.
Most recently, Williams worked with the UAPB Smallholder Farming Program to facilitate the program awareness project. The project funded by the conservation service aims to raise awareness among women, veterans, producers who are socially disadvantaged and with limited resources.
The aim is to sensitize target groups to service conservation practices and funding possibilities for the environmental quality incentive program.
GAIN SOMEONE’S TRUST
As he travels across the state, visits landowners unfamiliar with the incentive program, and discusses with them how they could improve their operations, he always clarifies one point.
“I tell them, ‘I didn’t come out of retirement to steal your land,'” he said. “I am here to help you help your land, so the earth can help you in return. “
Williams said distrust of U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) programs is still an issue among minority and resource-constrained producers. And some growers think the incentive program and other programs offered through the US Farm Bill are “free programs.”
“But that’s not the case,” he said. “I tell producers that these programs are funded through their own taxes. Since they have already contributed to these programs, why not take advantage of them? I remind them that this is a partnership – the USDA wants to partner with you to keep your land productive. “
Coordinating the outreach project to the program, Williams is working with two other members of the project, who also happen to be retirees – Joe Friend, current UAPB forester who was previously a district forester with the Arkansas Forestry Commission in Monticello, and Levell Foote, Natural Resource Conservation Retiree. Curator of the service district.
There are a few major benefits of working as a retiree group, according to Williams.
“On the one hand, we know how to talk to farmers, especially when it comes to issues like doubts about programs or setting targets for their land,” he said. “We have professional expertise and can offer them advice when planning the development of their land. And the fact that we still have relationships with USDA agencies helps ensure that these farmers are approved to implement practices that will make their lands more sustainable and profitable. ”
The team conducts site visits to get a feel for the condition and condition of the land, as well as to learn about the challenges owners face and their current goals. They are often joined by the Arkansas County Forestry Department of Forestry or the District Curator of the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
RETIREES / MENTORS
“Agency representatives are not always able to come with us to sites on their schedule,” said Williams. “So we are a resource for these agencies. We are basically additional aid workers who want to connect the Arkansans to the programs they offer. “
After the site visits, program members link landowners with the Farm Service Agency so they can get an official farm number, Williams said.
“This is an essential step,” he said. “Once you receive your farm number, you are then eligible for EQIP funds so that you can install recommended conservation practices.”
Program participants receive a Conservation Practices Identification Tool form that identifies conservation practices suitable for their operation after each site visit. Examples of conservation practices include planting timber, improving irrigation efficiency, improving land for wildlife, promoting soil health, preventing erosion and restoring pastures.
Williams said his team had helped gain approval from 10 landowners for the conservation practices of the Environmental Quality Incentive Program over the past year. The fastest applicants approved for incentive program funding are veterans, low-income and historically underserved producers.
“In many ways, this program is an extension of UAPB’s Keeping it in the Family Sustainable Forestry and African American Land Retention program,” he said. “SFLR’s overarching goal is to overcome historic barriers to African American forestry success and to help landowners conserve their family lands.”
UAPB’s Keeping it in the Family program is part of the African American Land Conservation and Sustainable Forestry Program Network. Launched by the US Endowment for Forestry and Communities in partnership with the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Forest Service in 2012, the program helps landowners resolve issues of ownership and retention of heir lands and understand the value of ” responsible management of forest lands.
“We are so proud to be operating on demand right now,” said Williams. “We want to help as many Arkansas landowners as possible conserve their family lands and will work with them to connect them with the resources needed to make the land more sustainable and profitable.”
For more information on the program outreach project or to request a site visit, contact the UAPB Smallholder Farming Program at (870) 575-7225 or [email protected]
Will Hehemann is a writer / editor at the School of Agriculture, Fisheries and Humanities at UAPB.