Ducks Unlimited

Report date
October 2022

What has been most instrumental to your progress?

In 2022, Ducks Unlimited (DU) was able to begin implementation of our newest funding opportunity, “Scaling Soil Health in the Prairie Pothole Region”. This $8.7M grant from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is funded through the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) and delivered through a new funding model referred to as the Alternative Funding Arrangement. DU can now leverage a variety of public and private funding sources to deliver more soil health practices in the Prairie Pothole Region and directly provide desired services to producers.

In our first signup, we selected five of our highest priority applications, obligating ~$900K in financial assistance for farmers and ranchers to impact approximately 6,000 acres of working croplands, grasslands, and wetlands. This opportunity is the direct result of successfully delivering the projects funded through our Innovation grant. The grant helped DU develop partnerships and networks to impact a broad agricultural community in eastern South Dakota in a way that benefits producer profitability and enhances ecological services. This platform gives DU an advantage for rapid growth with the new funding model
DU secured a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) to continue our soil sampling program for cooperating farmers. This $137K grant will provide funding to hire seasonal agronomy technicians to collect soil samples during the field season to quantify soil health in detail. In-field variables are measured (like infiltration rates, worm counts, soil compaction, etc.), but the bulk of the data is obtained by sending soil samples to an off-site laboratory for analysis. These analyses use cutting edge technology to quantify a wide variety of soil health factors that are not obtained by a standard agronomic test. These tests measure organic matter, microbial life, plant nutrient availability, etc. and provide a critical snapshot of soil management. The soil sampling program provides a service desired by farmers and helps conservation staff start the conversation about how recommended best management practices can improve soil health, long-term profitability, sustainability, and diversity. This is a critical step in our program.

Key lessons learned

A key component of this delivery program is demonstrating successful implementation of soil health practices. Those successes are measured in increased organic matter and a wide variety other soil health components. Success is also measured by reduced erosion, increased water storage capacity, and increased net profitability. However, success is dependent upon a variety of factors, including recent weather patterns, and is best measured over a longer-term period (> 5 years).

We’ve had to temper our expectations on a few of our developing projects, including progress on the Dale Demonstration Farm simply due to high variability in our recent climate. Weather patterns have shifted from exceptionally wet to exceptionally dry, which can impact conservation planning and results. These results aren’t failures, but more of a delay, and they’ve allowed us to find alternative methods for demonstrating success. We’ve found there is still value in demonstrating ‘early adoption’ of soil health practices, just as there is value in demonstrating well-tenured projects delivered by partners. We’ve shifted our focus to seek external partners to find key components of that demonstration spectrum.
Delivery of our soil health programs are gaining traction. As we develop working-lands projects on private lands, we build relationships and trust with cooperating landowners. That process takes time. As we began focusing on this method of conservation delivery, we struggled to make connections with the landowners we targeted. DU’s NGO-based programs were new and untested in the area, which can bring natural skepticism. However, as we’ve slowly built our clientele base, and successfully delivered projects in a way that cooperators appreciate, word of mouth and peer-to-peer outreach has rapidly increased interest in our programs. Similarly, traditional conservation partners like the NRCS are becoming more familiar with our programs and are referring cooperators to DU for conservation assistance.

This rapid increase in opportunities has shifted our workload considerably and forced us to think about increasing staff capacity in South Dakota.

Reflections on the community innovation process

Increase Collective Understanding of the Issue. Over several decades, conventional farming has transitioned to less sustainable monocultures of specialized commodities. This comes at a cost. It degrades soil health over time, increases erosion, reduces biodiversity and agricultural diversity, and impacts rural community growth. However, these negative attributes are tough to notice in a snapshot in time.

Our program focuses on on-site soil sampling to provide real data pertinent to conservation practice use. Our analyses can identify carbon, organic matter, and plant nutrient availability in soils. A farming system may seem profitable based on a 1-year budget but that changes when you can quantify long-term soil degradation. Our soil sampling and technical assistance has helped connect data to long-term recommendations of farming practices that improve diversity and robustness and lead to economic gains. We’ve coupled that with access to other local demo. sites and peer influencers to steer early adopters to successful and relevant local projects. By increasing the collective understanding of soil health impacts (agronomic & environmental) we’ve increased demand for assistance.

Progress toward an innovation

The community need we’ve identified is access to technical and financial assistance for farmers and ranchers in South Dakota seeking to improve sustainability, profitability, robustness, and diversity. Historically, there have been few funding mechanisms to provide those services and resources have been limited. The USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service is the primary resource in this area, but program availability is highly competitive, and many programs do not fit the needs of the grower. Through this project, we’ve built collaborative partnerships to increase awareness of opportunities, demonstrated successful implementation of recommended practices, and demonstrated successful delivery of our own financial incentives for those practices. The combination of these factors has allowed DU to deliver a unique financial assistance program (RCPP) for farmers and ranchers that supports economic equity gains.

The RCPP program provides flexibilities in the delivery of existing Farm Bill programs like the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), with DU providing valuable technical assistance. These projects are coupled with analyses to quantify environmental, financial, and social outcomes from practice implementation, and to promote additional education and peer-to-peer mentorship opportunities to our cooperating farmers.

Without our experiences working collaboratively with partners and cooperators in this project, DU would not be in a position to deliver a program of this scope. Recent allocations by congress indicate a strong commitment of federal funding to the RCPP program, and DU is uniquely suited to deliver that program in the Prairie Pothole Region.

What it will take to reach an innovation?


What's next?

Looking forward, this program is primed for growth. DU now has a strong foundation for rapid expansion in our delivery of regenerative agriculture. We will continue to build upon the success of the Dale Demonstration Farm to identify messaging that is most attractive to local growers as well as further explore key indicators that can help instigate change in practice delivery. We will continue to expand opportunities for soil health sampling to steer conversations on practice recommendations to on-site data applicable to specific farms. We will provide services that are desirable and flexible to farmers and ranchers that can improve ecosystem services and build communities.

Our goal is to reach a point in delivery where we can begin to quantify changes at a larger scale than at the farm level. If we can impact projects at the township level, or sub-watershed level, we can really begin to demonstrate outside of our local geography how these practices collectively can impact our larger society. No

If you could do it all over again...

You can’t sell this as a Ducks Unlimited wetland-specific program. If you want to impact a larger agricultural community (and the embedded wetlands involved), you must speak to the needs of local farmers and ranchers. Yes, many of those growers appreciate wetlands and wildlife; but those are not factors that determine how they run their farm or ranch. First and foremost, they must run their farm or ranch in a way that sustains their family, and they must do so in a way that improves sustainability.

One last thought

DU has continued to increase its focus on sustainable agricultural programs across the country. We now have Agriculture Strategic Plans for each region that lay out a clear vision for working with producers and landowners across the country to grow our conservation impact and environmental outcomes (e.g., clean water, healthy soils, abundant wildlife, and sustainable land use and vibrant communities). Ducks Unlimited’s vision is to work in partnership with farmers, ranchers, landowners, cooperatives, etc. to achieve sustainable agricultural landscapes that provide economic prosperity and healthy communities for people, while growing our conservation impact in the highest priority landscapes for North America’s waterfowl.

A recent highlight from this work is our role as a partner on a $40 million USDA Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities grant. As a project partner, DU will provide technical assistance in the Prairie Pothole region (North & South Dakota) to help producers implement climate-smart practices related to livestock fencing for grazing of cover crops and water management to avoid conversion of lands that would release greenhouse gases contained in soil.