Austin Jost has started her professional career with a challenging assignment: Sign up more farmers and landowners for grass filter strips.
Jost has been on staff since April with the Natural Resources Conservation Service office in Marion while working to finish her degree at Butler County Community College. Jost plans to study ag business and advertising at Kansas State.
The Hillsboro High School alum is motivated to be successful at her task because she has had first-hand negative experience with the consequences of having too few filter strips.
In short, grass strips planted along the outer edges of fields and hedges can greatly reduce the soil runoff that brings nitrogen and phosphorous into Marion Reservoir.
The two chemicals feed the blue-green algae blooms that have afflicted the lake the past several summers.
“I love to go out to the reservoir and go swimming or go boating—and we can’t even go out there anymore,” Jost said. “People are getting sick and livestock’s getting sick.
“I was out there fishing and wading in it, and I got really sick,” she added. “I couldn’t figure out why. I missed work for two weeks because of it.”
But during the course of her job, Jost also has become aware of the resistance that exists among some farmers and landowners to sign up for the NCRS program that subsidizes the cost of putting in filter strips.
Part of it has to do with the way the program operates, she admitted.
“We have restrictions and guidelines we have to follow, and some of the farmers don’t agree with them,” she said.
“Also, (the regulations) are always changing and they don’t like having to constantly change things,” she added. “They get irritated, and say, ‘We just don’t want to deal with the program; we’ll do it our way’ or not deal with it at all.
“I can understand that they’re getting frustrated.”
Also contributing to resistance is that the idea of making the lake more inviting for campers and visitors isn’t always seen as a positive thing.
“Some farmers say we don’t want these people around here,” Jost said. “But they also need to ask themselves what they like to do during their own time off. Are they out there fishing?
“For a lot of older men, that’s what they like to do themselves and what they like to do with their grandkids. But now you can hardly take your grandkids out there.”
The case for participation
So what is the case that might lead resistant folks to change their mind?
Economic incentive may be the most persuasive, Jost said.
Land usually designated for grass strips generally is unproductive for farming anyway.
“Crops planted along a hedge row, or along the road or along a creek—if there’s nothing to support them, your crop value has gone down because you’re not producing anything,” she said. “(Moisture and fertilizer) is getting sucked away from those crops.
“If you would take 30 feet—that’s the minimum width—and put in a grass strip, not only are you filtering out the stuff that’s running into the streams, but you’re actually saving yourself time and money.
“You’re not having to go back over that land and refertilize or double your seed, or put down extra chemicals,” she said. “Grass doesn’t really take away that much moisture like trees do.”
The second argument is the financial assistance that may be available through NRCS.
“We’re putting in a lot more money than people think,” she said. “One of the good benefits is that you hire the contractor, but we turn around and pay for a percentage of that contractor.”
The percentage of subsidy is affected by the number of acres involved, she added.
“If you’re eligible for PIP—our Practice Incentive Payment—that’s 50 percent right there,” she said. “Then there’s SIP— the Signing Incentive Payment. That’s another 20 percent when you first sign on or re-enroll.”
Jost said additional subsidy—called a Soil Rental Payment—is available, depending on the quality of the soil. If it qualifies, that’s an extra 20 percent.
Taken together, NRCS can cover anywhere from 50 to 90 percent of the cost of putting in the filter strips.
“You’re only paying 10 percent out of your pocket,” Jost said.
The critical need
The most critical need for additional filter strips is toward the northern end of the reservoir, which is the primary source for water and the biggest threat for chemical runoff.
“Right now we’re trying to work on the reservoir,” Jost said. “We aren’t saying people south of town can’t do this, though. They can. We’re trying to get (filter trips) out there, too. But the blue-green algae is a big factor right now.”
Another benefit of grass strips is that they provide wildlife cover.
“That’s one of the main points to do this around the reservoir,” Jost said. “Yeah, you’re going to bring in birds, but you’re also cleaning up the water so the birds will actually come back.
“Ducks are out there (among the blue-green algae blooms), and ducks are going to die for being there,” she said.
For more information about adding grass filter strips, Jost can be reached by calling 620-382-3737 or via e-mail at email@example.com.