2012-07-26 / News

Watson Farm boasts its beneficial conservation practices

Grass feeding, rotational grazing among the topics

There are many sights to see at Watson Farm. If you are lucky you might see the border collies herding the sheep at the historic property. 
PHOTO BY JEFF MCDONOUGH There are many sights to see at Watson Farm. If you are lucky you might see the border collies herding the sheep at the historic property. PHOTO BY JEFF MCDONOUGH Watson Farm is becoming an hub for information and education, according to Don Minto, who manages the 285-acre spread with his wife, Heather.

The Mintos started producing grass-fed beef more than three decades ago. Their ideas took a while to catch on, Minto said, but now farmers and agriculture service providers are coming to North Road to see sustainable farming practices in action.

Last week, for instance, Minto gave two tours. First, the Natural Resources Conservation Service sent about 35 guests on a threehour educational tour of Watson Farm to learn about its practices, such as grass feeding livestock all year round.

Then, some 22 farmers and service providers arrived for a fourhour walking tour of the property, partly to gain a first-hand look at its conservation practices, but also to find out how to apply for government grants.

Minto said the second group was evenly divided between farmers and service providers. Most came from South Kingstown, Hopkinton, Tiverton and the “northern part of the state,” he said.

The Eastern Rhode Island Conservation District recently contacted Minto to give a tour to service providers from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. According to Minto, they specifically wanted to talk about grants from the Environmental Quality Incentives Program.

The federal government has staked millions in Rhode Island farms, according to Mike Moorman, assistant state conservationist for programs at the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Rhode Island office.

Specifically, he said, the USDA has invested about $15 million through grants from the Environmental Quality Incentives Program.

EQIP is a revolving grant program. Moorman said the money stays in escrow until the farmers complete their projects, which typically takes between three and five years. Then it becomes available for new contracts. Last year, the USDA wrote contracts for new grants worth about $2 million.

Farmers apply through their conservation district, such as the Eastern Rhode Island Conservation District, which organized the event at Watson Farm, according to Jessica Blackledge, the district manager.

“NRCS programs enable landowners to solve resource issues from soil erosion to irrigation to simply conserving open space,” Blackledge said in an email invitation to the event. “Available plans include full farm conservation plans, grazing plans, forestry management plans, irrigation systems, heavy-use areas, high tunnels, erosion control, stream crossings, wildlife habitat, nutrient management, and hoop house installation.”

Moorman said the type of grant depends on the type of farm. For crop farms, the main effort is to prevent soil erosion, while for dairy farms, the focus is keeping manure out of the water supply. For cattle and livestock, the emphasis is on rotational grazing.

Watson Farm received a grant eight years ago, Minto said. The money was used to build infrastructure, and went partly to deliver water to outlying fields, thus allowing him to put cattle out there. Other innovations supported their existing rotational grazing conservation practices, Minto said. For example, he used some of the grant money to install moveable, portable fences.

“We move the cows and the sheep every day,” he said.

Minto and his wife have managed Watson Farm for 33 years for Historic New England, the nonprofit organization that owns the property. From the day they arrived, they implemented best conservation practices, such as rotational grazing. But at the outset, the experts said the Minto approach wouldn’t work.

“When we first started doing grass-fed beef and rotational grazing, everyone said you can’t do it,” he said. But the Mintos stuck with their methods and now practically everybody realizes the benefits.

“It’s more healthful for the animals and for the people who consume the product.” He went on to say the grass-fed method is “more sustainable” than growing corn to feed the livestock and plowing up the land.

Cattle evolved eating grass, he said.

According to Minto, cattle get unhealthy on corn. He cited E. coli outbreaks specifically as one result of feeding corn. “It makes more sense for us to use grass,” he said. “This land has been grassland for thousands of years because of the Narragansett Indians.”

Minto said the tour focused on conservation and farm management, and covered the practices they have implemented here for intensive rotational grazing, better fencing and water delivery.

“We have put in a water system so cattle can be moved around the property more easily,” he said. Minto mentioned that the farm has now installed water systems going into remote fields with a solar pump. He also uses conservation techniques to controls pests and to stop the spread of invasive plants.

“The tour is basically about explaining to farmers and service providers how these things have helped me, and how farmers can contact their conservation district and go through the grant process.”

All the conservation practices are cost-effective, he said, because the government grant pays about 75 percent of the price to implement the new systems. According to Moorman, the 75 percent is the upper limit, but the grant is almost never less than 50 percent of the costs.

Moorman said the USDA has been reaching out to farmers since Abraham Lincoln created the Department of Agriculture. And although many farmers already know about Environmental Quality Incentives Program, some don’t.

Rhode Island has seen an increase in the number of people farming, Minto said, and the newcomers may not be aware of the grants.

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