A 2018 Farm Bill is finally headed to be signed by President Trump. There are many components of the Farm Bill, and many other places you can find information about those components. Here, I am going to concentrate on private lands conservation programs and how those can be utilized. Throughout this Farm Bill, restoration of native habitats, addressing invasive species and increasing/protecting soil health seem to be forerunners. It will be exciting to see how these come to fruition. The primary agencies that oversee these portions of the Farm Bill are the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) and the USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA). Also, you are about to embark on an adventure in acronyms. Strap in.
Probably the hottest Farm Bill Conservation program that is most widely known is the Conservation Reserve Program, better known as CRP. Championed by many habitat enthusiast and NGO conservation organizations as an instrumental tool for wildlife; CRP is a land conservation program administered by the Farm Service Agency (FSA). In exchange for a yearly rental payment, farmers enrolled in the program agree to remove environmentally sensitive land from agricultural production and plant species that will improve environmental health and quality. Contracts for land enrolled in CRP are 10-15 years in length. The long-term goal of the program is to re-establish valuable land cover to help improve water quality, prevent soil erosion, and reduce the loss of wildlife habitat. In the 2018 Farm Bill, CRP acres would be expanded from 24 million acres to 27 million acres by 2023 with 2 million acres reserved for grasslands. Within the subsection for CRP, there is also verbiage for a “Soil Health and Income Pilot Program” for states within the Prairie Pothole Region. For some more information on CRP, check out CRP Works.
The Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) provides financial and technical assistance to agricultural producers in order to address natural resource concerns and deliver environmental benefits such as improved water and air quality, conserved ground and surface water, reduced soil erosion and sedimentation or improved or created wildlife habitat. From Title II. Subtitle C, Sec. 2302 of the proposed Farm Bill the purpose of EQIP is ‘‘(4) assisting producers to make beneficial, cost-effective changes to production systems, including addressing identified, new, or expected resource concerns related to organic production, grazing management, fuels management, forest management, nutrient management associated with crops and livestock, pest management, irrigation management, adapting to, and mitigating against, increasing weather volatility, drought resiliency measures, or other practices on agricultural and forested land.’’ As you can see, there is a lot to EQIP and it is very broad. For those of us who are in areas where CRP is limited, or not the best way to address resource concerns, EQIP is the primary conservation program. To stay out of the weeds, there are many other programs and grants under EQIPs subtitle in the proposed Farm Bill that are fairly exciting. EQIP will increase by $275 million to being above $2 billion (yes, with a b) with the President’s signature.
One of the most contested and discussed conservation programs of this Bill was the Conservation Stewardship Program, also known as CSP.CSP helps agricultural producers and landowners maintain and improve their existing conservation systems and adopt additional conservation activities to address priority resources concerns. Participants earn CSP payments for conservation performance—the higher the performance, the higher the payment. This program was actually proposed by the House to be dissolved into EQIP, much like the Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program had with earlier Farm Bills. Instead, the funding for this program was cut from $1.8 billion down to $1 billion.
The Region Conservation Partnership Program was a new program that was created in the 2014 Farm Bill. The RCPP brings together a wide array of local and national partners, including Indian tribes, nonprofit organizations, state and local governments, private industry, conservation districts, water districts, universities, and many others. So far, more than 2,000 partners are engaged in locally-led conservation efforts through RCPP. The most successful RCPP projects share four common characteristics. They innovate, leverage additional contributions, offer impactful solutions and engage more participants. The Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) encourages partners to join in efforts with producers to increase the restoration and sustainable use of soil, water, wildlife and related natural resources on regional or watershed scales. Through the program, NRCS and its partners help producers install and maintain conservation activities in selected project areas. RCPP would receive $300 million.
Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) provides financial and technical assistance to help conserve agricultural lands and wetlands and their related benefits. Under the Agricultural Land Easements component, NRCS helps Indian tribes, state and local governments and non-governmental organizations protect working agricultural lands and limit non-agricultural uses of the land. Under the Wetlands Reserve Easements component, NRCS helps to restore, protect and enhance enrolled wetlands. ACEP would be funded at $450 million. Also in the realm of easements is the Health Forest Reserve Program (HFRP). Healthy Forest Reserve Program helps landowners restore, enhance and protect forestland resources on private lands through easements and financial assistance. Through HFRP, landowners promote the recovery of endangered or threatened species, improve plant and animal biodiversity and enhance carbon sequestration. In this Farm Bill, it would include species of concern listed in each State Wildlife Action Plan, with a project limit size of 6,000 acres.
Other conservation programs that are in this Farm Bill that are interesting can be found in Title II, Subtitle D. Emergency Conservation Program and other disaster programs are pretty standard, but what really got me was a program labeled “Feral Swine Eradication and Control Pilot Program”. From the summary of the program, it is a partnership between the Animal and Plant Health Inspections Service (APHIS) and Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), both of the USDA, to work together and determine pilot areas for the project. The requirements for the areas in that they will “demonstrate feral swine impacts as a threat to agriculture, native ecosystems, or human or animal health.” The program would be $75 million.
For all the above programs, if you have any interest in participating or learning more, please visit your local USDA Service Center. If you have any more questions about this and the Farm Bill in general, feel free to reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will do my best to answer it. The Farm Bill and many other cost-share programs can be daunting and overwhelming, but, they can also play a vital role in restoring our landscape and protecting Gods creation.
For Love of the Land,
Tyler Ross - Land & Legacy Contributor