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USDA program connects school cafeterias with local farmers

By Wes Nelson

Farm Service Agency

WILLMAR — Officials from the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently announced that it was approving grants for 71 projects, spanning 42 states, to connect school cafeterias with local farmers under its Farm to School Program.

Selected projects will serve more than 13,000 schools and 2.8 million students, nearly 45 percent of whom live in rural communities.

The Farm to School Program helps schools respond to the growing demand for locally sourced foods, while increasing market opportunities for local producers and food businesses, including food processors, manufacturers and distributors. The grants will also be used to support agriculture and nutrition education efforts by helping fund school garden projects, cooking classes, and field trips to local farms.

Minnesota was the recipient of a $90,761 grant to support any of Minnesota’s school districts interested in participating in USDA’s Farm to School Program. Currently, 179 of the state’s districts participate in the program.

The Minnesota Department of Agriculture wants to introduce more school districts to the program by hiring someone to work with the department’s Minnesota Grown and Minnesota Agriculture in the Classroom programs.

The new position will involve working directly with the school’s food service staff and assist them in utilizing more local food sources by developing connections with Minnesota Grown farmers. Also being planned is the development of a database of local agricultural producers that schools can utilize in the future.

Recently released results of the USDA’s first-ever Farm to School Census showed that during the 2011-2012 school year, school districts purchased and served more than $350 million in local food items, with more than half of the participating schools planning to purchase more local foods in the future.

EQIP sign-up period ends Dec. 20

Initially authorized under the 1996 farm bill, and then reauthorized by the 2008 farm bill, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program provides technical and financial assistance to crop, livestock and other agricultural producers who make environmental and conservation improvements to their farming operation.

Applications for the program are accepted continuously at local offices of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. However, applications received by Dec. 20 will be considered for funding shortly thereafter. Other signup periods may be held if not all funds are obligated from the applications received during this signup period.

Producers can receive funding to help with the cost of installing a variety of long-term practices that reduce soil erosion, improve water quality, conserve energy and reduce water usage. Some common examples include reduced tillage practices, water and sediment control structures, grassed waterways, rotational grazing systems and conversions to low-pressure irrigation systems.

Producers who adopt new farming practices that provide conservation and environmental benefits may also qualify for special incentive payments. For example, EQIP can provide up to three years of annual incentive payments for farmers that adopt no-till or ridge-till farming practices, or who implement an approved nutrient and pest management plan.

Other special incentives are being offered to help implement conservation programs for organic producers, or address natural resources concerns for those transitioning to organic production. Financial assistance is also available to help growers meet the requirements of USDA’s National Organic Program.

Livestock producers continue to be the prime focus group of EQIP since Congress requires that at least 60 percent of its funding be devoted to livestock producers.  

Livestock producers may be eligible for funds to assist with the cost of installing the needed animal waste control structures to reduce or eliminate feedlot runoff. But in addition, they may qualify for up to three years of incentive payments to properly manage and utilize their animal waste products.

Funds are also available to cover a portion of the cost of establishing a composting system for dead animals, or to properly close animal waste impound structures that are no longer being used.

For more information, producers should stop in or call their local Natural Resources Conservation Service office.

Dried distillers grain has potential use

as kitty litter

Steven F. Vaughn, a researcher from the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, has shown that the main byproduct of corn ethanol production, also known as dried distillers grain, may prove to be a more environmentally friendly starting material for kitty litter than the popular, but non-biodegradable, clay-based litters that mostly end up in landfills.

This revelation could provide a new and perhaps high-value market for the tons of dried distillers grains that corn ethanol refineries now market primarily as a livestock and poultry feed ingredient.

In preliminary studies, Vaughn and his colleagues treated the dried distillers grains with one or more solvents to extract any remaining and potentially useful compounds. Once extracted, laboratory experiments resulted in a suggested formulation that included three other compounds: glycerol, to prevent the litter from forming dust particles when poured or pawed; guar gum, to help the litter clump easily when wet; and a very small amount of copper sulfate for odor control.

The resulting litter is highly absorbent, forms strong clumps that don’t crumble when scooped from the litter box, and provides significant odor control.

The idea of using corn or other grains as the basis of an environmentally sound cat litter isn’t new. However, Vaughn and his colleagues may be the first to extensively study the potential of using dried distiller’s grains as the primary component of a litter and make their results publicly available.

Wes Nelson is executive director of the USDA Farm Service Agency in Kandiyohi County.