Seventy-one year old vegetable grower Frank Wilbourn no longer has to snake soaker hoses over his fields to water his crops, thanks to a well and underground distribution lines he was able to obtain through a USDA/NRCS program.

He also has a new plastic-covered high tunnel facility, or “hoop house,” that allows him to start plants earlier in the spring and continue them later in the spring.

The irrigation system “has been a blessing in helping to water the things I grow, especially last summer when it was so dry and hot,” he says.

Wilbourn, whose pickup bears a bumper sticker, “No Farmers, No Food,” was able to qualify for cost-share assistance through the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service Small Farmer program, says Larry Pride, soil conservation technician, at the agency’s Marks, Miss., field office.

“One of the objectives is to provide assistance to non-traditional farmers to help promote locally-grown alternative crops, such as fruits and vegetables, and one of the ways to do that is to help them with small irrigation systems that will improve efficiency and enhance productivity.”

The program has been expanded to include historically underserved clients that the mainstream USDA programs typically don’t reach, says Paul Rodrigue, NRCS water management engineer at the Grenada, Miss., field office.

“These include limited resource farmers who meet certain financial conditions, socially disadvantaged farmers, such as African Americans, and beginning farmers (those who’ve been farming less than 10 years).

“We provide the design/engineering for the projects and assistance with the application process. The farmer works with a contractor for installation, and after the work is complete, we inspect it to be sure it meets the contract specifications and then approve payment.”

The amount of financial assistance varies according to the project and the individual circumstances, he notes.

In addition to small irrigation systems, assistance is available for erection of high tunnel facilities that can extend the growing season for vegetables and other crops and further incentivize locally-grown food.

“These aren’t greenhouses,” Rodrigue notes. “They have no heating or cooling — but are simply plastic-covered structures that enable a grower to get plants in the ground 30 days early in the spring and to maintain production 30 days later in the fall.

Funds through these programs are already committed for Mississippi for 2011, he notes, and applications for assistance would be for 2012.

Frank Wilbourn had already been producing fruits and vegetables for years, but needed a way to more efficiently distribute water to his fields.

Under the NRCS program, he was approved for a well/pumping system and underground lines with hydrants to distribute water in the field. He already had one hoop house on the property, but last year a second one was added through the USDA program.