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Farm organization pleased with producer response to new grasslands funding program

November 21, 2012, Guelph, ON - Producer response to a new pilot funding initiative for grassland habitat protection has exceeded expectations. Environmental Programs Coordinator Christine Schmalz with the Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association (OSCIA) says the organization received more bid packages from interested farmers than they anticipated which bodes well for the success of the program, and provides a clear signal that farmers are genuinely interested.

The Grassland Habitat Farm Incentive Program (GHFIP) provides cost-share funding through a new competitive bid process for farmers to implement best management practices that will help provide and protect grassland habitats. Many grassland wildlife species in Ontario depend on hayfields, pastures, meadows and native prairies to nest and feed their young. Of particular interest are grassland bird species at risk such as the Bobolink and Eastern Meadowlark that have come to rely on the managed agricultural landscape for survival.

"With this pilot program we wanted to provide funding for grassland projects and offer support to progressive farm businesses that are willing to go above and beyond when it comes to managing grassland habitats," says Schmalz. "We're also trying to make funds available in new, innovative ways that offer flexibility to farmers as well as meet the goals of our funding partners."

Instead of prescribed cost-share levels, the program's competitive online bid structure asked applicants to identify the amount of funding they felt was necessary to complete a desired project on their farm. They then had to complete a bid package that included details about the farm and proposed projects, accurate and specific project costs and information that leads to an evaluation of the associated environmental benefits for grassland species.

"As an organization, we recognize some of the limitations of current program delivery models, so we are trying to introduce and evaluate the effectiveness of changes based on feedback we are receiving," Schmalz says, adding this includes supporting different practices and offering alternatives to the first-come, first-served approach for funding distribution.

Schmalz also says that messaging from government funding partners is clear that future programs must demonstrate direct benefit to species and their habitat and come with better, more extensive performance measures to show the overall environmental impact.

"Production and economic benefits are easy to measure, but it's harder to calculate the full value of environmental benefits," she explains. "This new method lends itself well to upfront performance measures because applicants need to provide detailed information about their proposed projects."

There were some technical challenges with the online-only proposal process admits Schmalz, and OSCIA has been appreciative of farmers who have taken the time to provide the organization with feedback on the pilot system. All bids are confidential so that the competitive nature of the initiative isn't compromised.

Bid packages that have been received by OSCIA through GHFIP will be evaluated in upcoming weeks, and funding will be provided to those projects that best meet program criteria. OSCIA is also hoping to secure funding to continue this program beyond this initial pilot phase.

"Our Executive Board recognizes the need for this type of program and is supportive of this new approach," says OSCIA's President, Joan McKinlay. "The positive response to this program so far is a great barometer of how willing Ontario farmers are to accommodate the habitats of grassland species on their farms."

Funding for the Grasslands Habitat Farm Incentive Program is provided by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources through the Species at Risk Stewardship Fund.

November 27, 2012  By By Lilian Schaer for the Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association


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