Healthy Soils Program – Lessons Learned, New Guidelines Out Soon

Posted on Monday, July 9th, 2018 by Brian Shobe

With new funding available for the California Healthy Soils Program, we wanted to review the lessons learned from last year’s first round of applications.

Initial farmer interest in the program was strong. Nearly 400 farmers and ranchers attended program workshops and webinars on short notice during the peak of the growing season in late August and early September 2017. But despite high workshop attendance, relatively few farmers and ranchers actually completed applications. Of the 175 producers who started applications, only 96 completed them.

What were the barriers that prevented so many interested farmers and ranchers from applying?

To try to answer that question, CDFA surveyed the 79 Healthy Soils Program applicants who started but did not finish their applications. Survey respondents were asked to indicate one or more reasons they did not complete their application. 19 farmers responded to the survey.

Source: CDFA Presentation at March 15, 2018 meeting of the Environmental Farming Act Science Advisory Panel

Timing issues were the most frequently reported barriers. Nearly 90% of respondents indicated the six-week application period was insufficient time to apply. 60% said the timing of other farm activities did not allow them to complete the application.

The complexity of the application, insufficient payment rates, tough cost-share requirements, and limited technical assistance were also commonly noted as barriers. About half of the respondents said the application was too complicated and required too much information. 40% of respondents indicated that payment rates were insufficient, 33% indicated they could not provide the 3rd year cost-share requirement, and 27% indicated there was no technical assistance available.


Opportunities to Improve the Program

These results resonated with the feedback we heard from dozens of farmers and technical assistance (TA) providers.

Early this year, CalCAN sent a memo to CDFA summarizing the feedback we received and recommendations we heard in conversations with farmers in our network and focus group calls with seventeen Healthy Soils Program technical assistance providers. Those recommendations include the following:

Improve Application Period Timing and Duration

  • Open the application period between November and April, when farmers generally have more time and capacity to work on grant applications.
  • Allow for a 12-week application period to give TA providers sufficient time to do effective outreach, project planning, and application assistance.

Streamline the Incentives Program Application

  • Eliminate all open-ended essay questions for the application. Use check-boxes instead.
  • Reduce the number of attachments required (e.g. integrate the work plan template into the application and combine the budget and cost-sharing attachments).
  • Replace the work plan with a check-box approach for the applicant’s desired new practices and add drop-down textboxes to fill in the APNs, Field Numbers, Acreages, and Start and End Dates for each practice selected.
  • Resolve the confusing and burdensome Disadvantaged Community Criteria section on the application, including consideration of whether an applicant identifies as a Socially Disadvantaged Farmer. To the extent possible, have CDFA staff assess applications for DAC status after the eligibility phase of the review process.

Remove Unnecessary Program Barriers

  • Eliminate the third-year matching requirement of the program.
  • Eliminate the soil management practice requirement.
  • Drop the 120-farmer participation requirement for demonstration projects and instead hold applicants accountable to SMART (Specific, Measurable, Ambitious, Realistic, Time-bound) goals.
  • Allow practices to be rotated among fields (e.g. cover crops in rotation).
  • Allow practices to be applied once or every other year and pay for them accordingly (e.g. one-year rangeland compost, every other year vineyard compost, every other year mulch application).
  • Allow on-farm compost, provided it was produced in compliance with the Food Safety Modernization Act’s compost standards.

Prioritize One-on-One Technical Assistance to Get the Most Out of Limited Funding

  • Prioritize funding for one-on-one technical assistance and adequately reimburse TA providers for their outreach and assistance on the program.
  • Recognize that effective outreach can be done in ways that don’t involve a workshop.

Support Outreach and Technical Assistance with Multilingual Promotional Materials, Sample Applications, and Real-Time Application Q&A

  • Create promotional and application assistance materials for the program (e.g. flyer/brochure, fact sheet, FAQ, sample application)
  • Translate all program materials (outreach and application) into Spanish. Make translation services available for other languages upon request.
  • Allow for real-time responses to questions during the application period all the way through the deadline; post responses to the program webpage on a weekly basis.

Institute Feedback Process and Program Evaluation for Equity Considerations

  • Re-evaluate payment rates based on feedback from TA providers and applicants.
  • Seek feedback from 1st round TA providers on revised application and program guidelines.
  • Survey 1st round award recipients 12 months into the project period to receive feedback about how to improve future rounds.
  • Add a socially disadvantaged farmer/rancher (as defined in Section 510-514 of the Food and Agricultural Code) checkbox to the application so that CDFA can monitor program participation by socially disadvantaged farmers/ranchers and make recommendations to improve participation per the requirements of the Farmer Equity Act.

In order to improve farmer and rancher participation in the Healthy Soils Program at a critical time of expansion for the program, we hope to see many of these recommendations incorporated in CDFA’s soon-to-be-released draft program guidelines for the second round of the Healthy Soils program. We will share those draft guidelines when they become available. You can sign up for Healthy Soils Program updates from CDFA by clicking here.

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