by Will Hehemann | School of Agriculture, Fisheries and Human Sciences
After his 44-year career with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Charley Williams, a veteran soil conservationist and alumnus of the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff (UAPB), shows no signs of slowing down in his career. He continues to serve Arkansas’ small-scale and underserved farmers, introducing them to U.S. Department of Agriculture programs that better their land.
Most recently, Williams has been working with the UAPB Small Farm Program to facilitate the Program Awareness Project. The NRCS-funded project is intended to provide outreach to women, veteran, socially-disadvantaged and limited-resource producers. The goal is to increase awareness of NRCS conservation practices and funding opportunities in the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) among the targeted groups.
As he travels across the state, making site visits to landowners unfamiliar with EQIP and speaking with them about how they could improve their operations, he always makes one point clear.
“I tell them, ‘I did not come out of retirement to steal your land,’” he says. “‘I’m here to help you help your land, so the land can help you in return.’”
Williams said mistrust of USDA programs is still an issue among minority and limited-resource producers. And some producers think EQIP and other programs offered through the U.S. Farm Bill are “freebie programs.”
“But that is not the case,” he said. “I tell producers that these programs are funded thanks to their own tax dollars. Since they’ve already paid into these programs, why not take advantage of them? I remind them that this is a partnership – the USDA wants to partner with you to keep your land productive.”
In coordinating the Program Awareness Project, Williams works with two other project members, who also happen to be retirees – Joe Friend, current UAPB forester who formerly served as district forester with the Arkansas Forestry Commission in Monticello, Arkansas, and Levell Foote, retired NRCS district conservationist. He says there are a few major benefits to working as a group of retirees.
“For one, we know how to talk to farmers, especially when it comes to issues such as misgivings about programs or determining goals for their land,” he said. “We have professional expertise and can offer them advice as they plan how to enhance their land. And the fact we still have connections in the USDA agencies helps ensure these farmers get approved for implementing practices that will make their land more sustainable and profitable.”
The team makes site visits to get an idea about the condition and status of the land, as well as to hear about any challenges the landowners are facing and their current goals. They are often joined by the Arkansas Department of Forestry’s county forester or NRCS district conservationist.
“The agencies’ representatives aren’t always able to come out with us on site visits depending on their schedules,” Williams said. “So, we are a resource for these agencies. We are essentially extra help employees who want to connect Arkansans with the programming they offer.”
After site visits, program members link the landowners with the Farm Service Agency so they can obtain an official farm number, Williams said.
“This is an essential step,” he said. “Once you receive your farm number, you are then eligible for EQIP funds so you can install recommended conservation practices.”
Program participants receive a Conservation Practice Identification Tool form that identifies conservation practices suitable for their operation after each site visit. Examples of conservation practices include timber planting, improving irrigation efficiency, improving land for wildlife, promoting soil health, preventing erosion and restoring pastureland.
Williams said his team helped get 10 landowners approved for EQIP conservation practices in the last year. Applicants who are approved most quickly for EQIP funding are veterans, low-income and historically-underserved producers.
“In many ways, this program is an extension of UAPB’s Keeping it in the Family (KIITF) Sustainable Forestry and African American Land Retention (SFLR) Program,” he said. “The overarching goal of SFLR is to address historic barriers to African American success in forestry and to help landowners retain their family land.”
UAPB’s KIITF Program is part of the SFLR Program Network. Launched by the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities in partnership with the NRCS and the Forest Service in 2012, the program helps landowners address heirs’ property and land retention issues and understand the value of responsibly managing forestland.
“We are so proud to be operating on request at this time,” Williams said. “We want to help as many Arkansas landowners as possible hold on to their family land and will work with them to connect them with the resources to make the land more sustainable and profitable.”
For more information on the Program Awareness Project or to request a site visit, contact the UAPB Small Farm Program at (870) 575-7225 or firstname.lastname@example.org.