Financial and technical support awaits STAR Plus participants

Photo courtesy of Colorado Potatoes

Apply through Mosca-Hooper Conservation District

ALAMOSA — In early 2022, the Valley Courier reported on the launch of the Colorado STAR program, a soil health program created out of a partnership between the Colorado Department of Agriculture (CDA), Colorado State University (CSU) and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), among others. The program, modeled out of one developed in Illinois, was built in Colorado from the ground up, with input from hundreds of stakeholders.

The full name of the program (Saving Tomorrow's Agriculture Resources) reflects precisely what the program was created to do – empower agriculture producers with the knowledge and support to employ healthy soil practices that are proven to resist wind and soil erosion, retain water for plant growth and is drought resistant, pest resistant, is easier to work and more versatile, increases productivity and stores carbon.

As Erin Nissen of Nissen Farms said at this year's Southern Rocky Mountain Ag Conference, "Farmers have three things to work with: water, sun and soil. Healthy soil is just as important as the other two."

The Colorado STAR program is based on the STAR Rating system, an innovative and simple framework that allows farmers and ranchers to evaluate their current production system, identify areas for improved management to increase the health of their soil, and then document their progress. But STAR also creates a common language for growers to communicate with each other as they share their successes, a practice that promotes a network of learning from each other in a profession that is often solitary.

But the program, as it has been implemented in Colorado, did not stop there. In 2022, STAR Plus was created and funded by the CDA to incentivize and support growers in changing their practices while they begin to see the tremendous investment in healthy soil can yield.

Administered through conservation districts, STAR Plus provides 50% reimbursement up to $5,000 a year for qualifying soil health practices, including cover crop planting, compost, humates, and manure applications, reduced till planting, soil building crop rotations, intercropping, rotational grazing, soil health education, qualifying equipment purchase cost-sharing for no-till seeders and planters, compost and manure spreaders, virtual fencing, and soil moisture sensors.

Those enrolled in STAR Plus also receive three years of program support, ongoing technical support, access to the online STAR field form for a self-reported STAR rating, free soil tests in the first and third year plus education, and, as mentioned, peer-to-peer learning opportunities.

In 2022, Colorado's STAR Plus enrolled 125 Colorado producers and 16 conservation districts. Mosca-Hooper Conservation District registered seven San Luis Valley STAR Plus producers during that same period.

With their eyes on the future, CDA is planning in 2023 to increase enrollment to triple that number to 450 producers and at least 40 conservation districts.

Mosca-Hooper Conservation District has its own goals to enroll up to 13 more Alamosa County producers. By enrolling in 2023, STAR Plus financial and technical support begins on October 1, 2023, and extends through September 30, 2026.

Applications are competitive, especially as the program's gains become increasingly known. According to Nissen, the value of healthy soil cannot be underestimated. As she also said during a panel discussion at this year's ag conference, "It's more labor intensive, and I understand that change is hard. But my water usage is down. Our yield is up. And that's because of the healthy soil practices we use."

For more info, search online at "CDA Soil Health" or https://ag.colorado.gov/soil-health.

To request enrollment in STAR Plus, email: [email protected] or call 719-992-3661.