LANSING — One fundamental tenet the Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program (MAEAP) impresses upon those seeking verification is the importance of good record-keeping. It’s hard to evaluate progress without marking where you started and documenting gains made by implementing on-farm conservation practices.
Now the program itself is taking that same lesson to heart with the implementation of a new MAEAP database its organizers will use to better track, document and promote the program’s stewardship achievements statewide.
Joe Kelpinski manages MAEAP from his position within the environmental stewardship division of the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. He sees the new database as a vital tool for not only monitoring the program’s effectiveness at minimizing potential pollution risks, but also as a means for better communicating that effectiveness to the non-farming public.
“First and foremost I see this as a marketing tool. I want to tell the story about MAEAP in ways we’ve never been able to before,” Kelpinski said. “We’re always being asked about sustainability. This improved data set will better equip us to tell people exactly what we’re accomplishing.
“In the past, the techs submitted lists of field activities detailing what watershed they were working in, how many linear feet of filter strips were being installed, etc., but we couldn’t really use that information to tell a story of what they were really achieving. Now we’ll be able to see it as they’re working through the verification process.
“That process will remain the same; it’s our ability to collect data that’s improving,” he said, including the technical specifications and statistics about implemented conservation practices—and firmer numbers quantifying the benefits of those practices, such as reduced nitrogen and phosphorus runoff into waterways.
Internal monthly reports will allow Kelpinski to monitor field tech productivity, verification progress and the application of grant funds within the program. Eventually it will also be used to generate annual progress reports for MAEAP partners.
The new system holds no changes in store for farmers working toward verification, and all the farm-specific information their MAEAP technicians are tasked with gathering will remain private.
“I can’t emphasize enough that all this information we’re gathering will be strictly confidential,” Kelpinski said. “Everybody using this database has to sign confidential non-disclosure agreements.
“It won’t even be FOIA-able,” he added, referring to the Freedom of Information Act journalists and other entities use to tap public information sets.
Only MAEAP field technicians and internal program staff will have first-hand access to the database. The current stable of techs have been trained in the new system and began populating it with current information as of Oct. 1.
“By mid-January I want any farms we’re currently working with entered in the database, as well as practices they’re implementing,” Kelpinski said. “I think we’ll start having a usable data set in 12 to 18 months.”
Over the course of the next year, students will be tasked with data entry, moving information from MAEAP’s previous record-keeping system into the new database.