At his farm in Mancos, Mike Nolan uses a disc harrow to return some organic matter from a winter crop to the soil and prepare it for spring potato planting. / Courtesy Mindy Perkovich, Mountain Roots Produce

Not long after Yadira Caraveo became the inaugural U.S. representative for Colorado’s new 8th Congressional District, the Democrat from Thornton found herself talking with farmers about climate change. 

Some were Republicans in Weld and Adams counties who wouldn’t use the words “climate change,” but they told Caraveo they are noticing things are different, like shifts in harvest and planting times. They’re also tracking weather patterns they haven’t seen before and it’s only heightened their concerns about conserving water.

“To them it’s not news,” Caraveo said. “It’s something that they’ve understood for some time. They don’t necessarily want to call it climate change. We’re talking about the same thing.”

Semantics aside, Caraveo has found some common ground with the agricultural community. That includes smaller farming operations looking to participate in federal programs that help improve their conservation practices. But some can’t get their foot in the door. So, Caraveo has set her sights on changes to the federal Environmental Quality Incentives Program. Known as EQIP, it pays farmers to use conservation methods that, in part, promote healthy soil. That improves crop yields and farmers’ profits as well as the environment. Because healthier soil contains more organic matter and can store more carbon dioxide, it helps reduce atmospheric greenhouse gasses linked to climate change. The program is viewed by many as a win-win.

While the program is technically open to farms of all sizes, it skews toward larger agriculture operations because federal payments are calculated by acreage. Larger farms typically have more staff and time to handle paperwork.

Small farms find it tough to access the program, Caraveo said.

“They wish that they could get into EQIP,” Caraveo said. “We’re trying to address some of those ills.”

In September, Caraveo introduced legislation to create an EQIP subprogram tailored to small farmers and ranchers like the ones she’s met in her district. The bill would streamline the application and approval process and create bonus payments for farms under 50 acres.

Called the “Small Farm Conservation Act,” Caraveo’s bill is a companion to a U.S. Senate measure of the same name introduced in June by Sens. Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, Ben Ray Luján, D-New Mexico, and Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio.

“Farmers and ranchers love EQIP,” said Dan Waldvogle, director of the Denver-based Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, an advocacy group for farmers and ranchers in Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico. “EQIP has never been accessible for small producers.”

Conservation measures supported by the program can improve irrigation efficiency, make land more resilient to drought while making it more productive and profitable, he said.

“That’s a very tangible benefit,” he said.

How much financial assistance a farmer can expect from EQIP depends on the type of conservation methods they want to employ, from organic practices to using hoops covered with plastic over crops to extend their growing season. Farmers can be reimbursed a maximum of $450,000 over the term of an EQIP contract, which can range up to 10 years.

One of the biggest factors in soil health is organic matter, said Mike Nolan, a farmer with Mountain Roots Produce in Mancos in southwestern Colorado. The more of it, the better water savings. For instance, he could water potatoes every seven days instead of five and extend the growing season for larger potatoes that sell for more money.

In addition to potatoes, his farm grows salad mix, tomatoes, kale and other vegetables, as well as flowers. It also participates in a collective that ships garlic to the Denver metro area. 

Although the EQIP program isn’t geared toward smaller operations, such as Nolan’s farm, he found a way to access it, but said it is difficult.

“It’s government paperwork, so there’s a lot of it,” he said on a recent afternoon after harvesting potatoes at the farm. “This bill is kind of addressing some of those things.” 

Both Caraveo’s bill and its companion in the Senate are separate from the “Farm Bill,” a package of legislation renewed roughly every five years that is key to a broad swath of agricultural and food programs. 

Caraveo, a member of the House Committee on Agriculture, expects to play a role in drafting the Farm Bill and aims to have her Small Farm Conservation Act included in the final package.

Congress’ deadline to pass a new Farm Bill came and went entering October and Caraveo’s staff says work on it will progress in the months ahead.

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