Raising crops is never a sure thing.

CENTRAL POINT — Raising crops is never a sure thing.

Market prices, pestilence and weather can erode profits faster than a flash flood washes away topsoil.

When Ed Vaughn acquired 150 acres off Old Stage Road in the mid-1990s, he planted a pear orchard and began improving the surrounding pastureland. His orchard has produced as many as 265 tons of Bartlett, Comice, Bosc and Packham's Triumph — an Australian variety — during annual harvests.

Frost and hail reduced the Bartlett crop by nearly 50 percent this year and Comice production tumbled as well. Undaunted, the retired U.S. Forest Service forester, who later built computers for a Bend retailer before turning to the soil, is getting ready for the next growing season and preparing adjacent pastureland for cattle. Working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service, he has enhanced his irrigation, fertilization and pest control practices to improve future yield.

For farmers such as Vaughn, who previously adopted long-term environmental practices, it was an additional incentive.

"It rewarded me for what I was already doing, being a good steward of the land," said Vaughn, who received per-acre funding for proper management techniques.

Between now and Dec. 15, the NRCS is asking farmers, ranchers and forestland owners of the nonindustrial variety to apply for technical and financial assistance through its office at 573 Parsons Drive, Suite 102, in west Medford. Financial awards are made in the spring.

Although the number of applications exceeded available dollars last year, more than 527 Oregon land managers qualified for $13.6 million to improve sustainability of their operation through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program.

NRCS has 12 contracts worth $381,000 with local agricultural producers, said Medford District conservationist Erin Kurtz. From 2005 to 2010, the agency awarded six to 13 multi-year contracts worth $200,000 to $400,000 through its Environmental Quality Incentives Program. There are another five contracts worth $122,400 through the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program.

Kurtz and soil conservationist Peter Winnick are available to make recommendations, design maps for landowners and provide other assistance. Kurtz said projects are evaluated with the help of agencies such as Jackson Soil and Water Conservation District.

"We draw from their strategic plans," Kurtz said. "We get dozens of requests every year, but it's not about the number of people; it's the acres. We might have one huge project that ranks high on the priority list."

In addition to irrigation, pest and fertilizer management, NRCS assistance helped Vaughn add a nesting box and perches for hawks.

"You have to document what you do," Vaughn said.

Feeding rainfall estimates and other data into a nearby Oregon State University experiment station's modeling system, Vaughn was able to develop an irrigation schedule.

He has two active contracts for irrigation and grazing that continue through 2012.

"The big project this year is for a new irrigation pump and system for 42 acres of pasture," he said.

That involves fencing and replanting the pasture that will be leased to Adam McCarthy for raising cattle.

"We want to set it up so he can operate profitably," Vaughn said. "It started off as a weed pasture with no irrigation other than flooding, and that isn't very efficient."

Greg Stiles is a reporter for the Mail Tribune. Reach him at 541-776-4463 or e-mail business@mailtribune.com.