Caribe SWCD Delivers Customer-Focused Conservation with Help of Technical Assistance Grant Funding

By Candice Abinanti

Located in the southern region of Puerto Rico known for its natural resources and outdoor recreation opportunities, including beaches, fresh seafood and mountains ideal for coffee growing, the Caribe Soil and Water Conservation District’s (SWCD) diverse clients face some common challenges. As Gelyan Reyes, former district soil  conservation technician recently hired by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) explains, “soils in this region tend to be overworked, and chemical fertilizers overused, impacting water quality. Storms, like Hurricanes Irma and Maria, further contribute to soil erosion and landslides.” In the months following these back-to-back hurricanes in 2017, Reyes says the “Caribe SWCD’s office was filled with producers seeking recovery assistance, yet many were unfamiliar with conservation practices and NRCS programs.”

With the help of Technical Assistance (TA) grant funding from NACD, made possible through the association’s agreement with NRCS, the Caribe SWCD provides conservation technical assistance and planning support to producers. The Caribe SWCD also helps producers access funding and implement conservation best management practices through NRCS’ Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). Some of the district’s successes include a high tunnel that saved a farmer’s crop of beans from humidity and fungus, and erosion control work on one farm that turned the producer into a champion for good soil health management practices.

A free membership program the Caribe SWCD launched in 2020 is one creative way the district is further helping to meet the needs of their producers. The program, now 200 members strong, acknowledges producers’ commitment to conservation with a certificate, and offers members a variety of benefits. Producers gain access to training opportunities provided by the district and partners. They can also call on the district for technical assistance, including help with activities like “contour layouts, mulching, soil sampling and erosion control, even if a producer prefers not to work with federal conservation programs,” says Reyes.

During the pandemic, the Caribe SWCD developed original content, like videos, and shared them on their social media outlets. They also leveraged social media to promote their farmers’ products and connect them with buyers since many farmers markets, or “placitas” as they are known in Puerto Rico, have been closed. Through social media, and information shared regularly through a member mailing list, the Caribe SWCD has further created for producers a network of peers for sharing information and addressing issues. One such issue is a lack of information available in Spanish. This creates barriers to applying for programs, an issue recently raised with visiting federal officials.

With increased activity and visibility, the Caribe SWCD has also attracted new partners and volunteers to their conservation mission. In collaboration with the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and with the help of Agro Associates, ID Media Lab, the Cambalache nursery of Puerto Rico’s Department of Natural and Environmental Resources and many volunteers, the Caribe SWCD has planted more than 5,000 trees to reforest public areas through a project known as “Un Arbol En Tu Vida,” or “A Tree In Your Life.” Over 33 percent of the trees planted established successfully.

As part of an agreement with USFS and its Forest Stewardship Program, the Caribe SWCD also completed 18 forest management plans for landowners. These plans were completed in less than a year during the challenges of the pandemic, marking an important achievement for the district. This planning has helped to raise the conservation awareness of farmers and landowners and the need for more funding to meet their goals.

The Caribe SWCD continues to help their producers and communities conserve natural resources in innovative, customer-focused ways. As Reyes explains, “we want farmers to trust us, and don’t want them to feel stuck.”

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