Virginia farmers and forest land owners can now apply for assistance to protect the health and productivity of their land under the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) administered through the U.S. Department of Agriculture\u2019s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), formerly Soil Conservation Service.\r\nThis popular 2014 Farm Bill program offers technical and financial assistance to plan and install conservation practices on crop-, pasture-, and non-industrial private forest land. In 2015, Virginia producers received $13 million in EQIP contracts to help improve water quality, soil health, and wildlife habitat.\r\nNRCS accepts applications year-round but makes funding selections at specific times. Application cutoff dates for the FY16 EQIP ranking period is February 19.\r\nJulie Hawkins, NRCS assistant state conservationist for programs, noted it is important for farmers to get applications in early to be eligible for limited funding. \u201cConservation plans must be developed for the area included in an EQIP contract,\u201d she said. \u201cA complete conservation plan helps speeds up the application process and allows farmers to apply practices more strategically.\u201d\r\nEligible producers may receive a payment based on the statewide average cost for installing planned conservation practices. Socially disadvantaged, limited resource and beginning farmers and ranchers are eligible for a higher payment rate. Veteran farmers who are also new or beginning farmers receive the higher payment rate and will be funded first.\r\nAt least five percent of available EQIP funds will be used to address wildlife concerns. Special EQIP fund pools are also available to offer technical and financial assistance for the following focal areas as well as a number of landscape based initiatives:\r\n\u2022 On-Farm Energy: Agricultural Energy Management Plans (AgEMP) or farm energy audits that assess energy use and recommend ways to reduce it;\r\n\u2022 Longleaf Pine: Assistance to help establish and manage longleaf pines within the historical range in Southeastern Virginia;\r\n\u2022 Specialty Crops and Organic: Conservation practices to help certified organic growers, those working to achieve organic certification, and specialty crop producers address resource concerns on their operations;\r\n\u2022 High Tunnel (Hoop House): Funding to plan and install these steel-framed, polyethylene-covered structures that extend growing seasons in an environmentally safe manner. Farmers who completed a hoop house under the 2008 Farm Bill are also eligible to apply under the current 2014 Farm Bill;\r\n\u2022 National Water Quality Initiative: Assistance for installing conservation practices to clean up impaired streams and improve aquatic habitats. Watersheds eligible for this fund pool are Fifteenmile Creek in Washington County and War Branch and Mountain Run in Rockingham County;\r\n\u2022 StrikeForce Initiative: Targeted resources and assistance in rural Virginia communities with the greatest need. Eligible producers can receive funding to install conservation practices based on state identified natural resource concerns such as grazing, soil erosion, water conservation, and water quality.\r\nIf you are interested in Farm Bill programs, call the local Stuart Field Office at (276) 694-3121, extension 103 or visit the office in the USDA Service Center on Stonewall Court in Stuart, to discuss conservation measures you would like to implement on your land. NRCS staff will help you develop a plan, identify recommended practices, and pursue funding through one of the many Farm Bill program options available. General program information is available on the NRCS Virginia website at www.va.nrcs.usda.gov.