Federal Conservation Resources for
Sustainable Farming and Ranching
NCAT Agriculture Specialist
Published 2007, updated 2010 © NCAT
This publication offers an overview of the major federal conservation programs that provide resources for farmers and ranchers to enhance and maintain sustainable farming and ranching practices. The level of available conservation resources for this area has dramatically increased since 2002. This guide helps farmers and ranchers make their way through the often complex and difficult application processes. Access to these resources can open new opportunities to preserve agricultural lands, develop sustainable practices, and open new markets.
Table of Contents
- Federal Conservation Resources and Your Farm or Ranch
- What's Available? Overview of Federal Conservation Resources for Working Lands
- Conservation Programs and USDA Agency Responsibilities
- Know the Programs: Working Land vs. Retiring Land
- National vs. Local Differences in Program Details
- Working Lands Programs
- Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP)
- Farm and Ranch Land Protection Program (FRPP)
Related ATTRA Publications
Doug Crabtree and Anna Jones-Crabtree farming on their 1,280-acre organic farm in Montana after finishing spring 2010 seeding. Photo by Anna Jones-Crabtree.
Anna Jones-Crabtree and Doug Crabtree are beginning farmers in their early forties returning to their agricultural roots. They have benefited greatly from new Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) programs. With 1,280 acres of certified organic cropland, Anna and Doug were awarded an Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) contract through a special initiative to assist organic farmers and ranchers. They have also applied for the new NRCS Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP).
As Doug explains "Farming is the only thing I ever wanted to do. I believe farming is the most important avocation. I grew up on a farm that did not make it through the farm crisis of the '80s and have been waiting for the right time and opportunity to return to the land ever since."
NRCS programs were critical to the Crabtrees' ability to begin organic farming. Anna says, "The EQIP Organic Initiative came at just the right time for us as we literally started our operation from scratch in 2009. The EQIP Organic Initiative provided additional financial support as part of our start-up package. Practices we are implementing include organic transition, nutrient management, pest management, flex-crop, cover crop, field borders, and seeding pollinator species. Because we are considered beginning farmers, we were able to be included in the beginning farmer set-aside for the EQIP program."
This publication will help the reader understand how to capture these and other federal conservation benefits that help the bottom line and promote more sustainable agriculture.
|Organic Production and New NRCS Programs|
The Crabtrees were awarded a contract under a special Organic Initiative of EQIP that allows organic and transitioning organic growers to receive financial assistance for implementing conservation practices as part of their Organic Systems Plan or Organic Transitions Plan. However, since this special initiative is new (first offered in 2009), specific technical assistance has not been strong. As Doug and Anna say, "NRCS has been supportive of our efforts and wonderful on the logistics of the actual contract. However, their need to support a significant number of producers limits their ability to spend time understanding our integrated systems approach. Overall, their understanding of organic agriculture in general could be better. For our farm, we are attempting to take a whole-farm systems approach and implement practices together in an integrated way. When NRCS administers EQIP contracts, they approach each type of practice individually so the ability to tailor a specific practice to fit the overall farming system is limited."
The Crabtrees are also pursuing support from the new Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). However, differences between organic practices and historical NRCS conservation practice standards can cause problems. As Doug says, "Two enhancements that we looked closely at implementing, namely non-chemical methods to kill cover crops (WQL17) [PDF/44K], and Use of Cover Crop Mixes (SQL04) [PDF/62K] illustrates how NRCS needs to better understand organic cropping systems. These enhancements, which would otherwise be a good fit for our system, include the requirement that crops must be no-tilled after the cover crop is terminated. Appropriate tillage is critical to weed control and moisture management in our dryland organic system. Not all tillage is created equal and it seems as if there is a bias towards only no-till approaches in several of the enhancements. We would really like to experiment with mowing and undercutting as less-invasive means of terminating our green manure crops. But, due to the no-till requirement, our adoption of CSP enhancements has been greatly limited."
The Crabtrees noted a couple of challenges in the EQIP program requirements:
Even with these challenges, the EQIP program has been an important piece of the Crabtrees' whole-farm approach to conservation. As they say, "There needs to be more NRCS staff overall, and specifically, more staff training and understanding of the whole-farm system approach that is inherent in organic. This is crucial for NRCS to be able to provide a higher level of technical support. Organic approaches are more than just the elimination of pesticides, but rather a more integrated way of approaching rotations, soil health, and farm resiliency. The NRCS field staffs need to have more training in organic agriculture if they are going to be helpful to organic farmers trying to use these programs. Our hope is that by working together we will not only help producers who want to move to organic systems but also inform NRCS practices and standards to support conservation activities in farming systems that are not dependent on the use of off-farm fertilizers and pesticides."
Since 1985, the federal government has provided significant benefits to American farmers and ranchers either by retiring marginal and environmentally sensitive lands or by cost-sharing the adoption of improved conservation practices on working lands. Since 2002, working-lands conservation has enjoyed accelerated support. Programs that support agricultural land preservation (Figure 1) have also been initiated. Learning how to take advantage of these important, but often complicated, programs can help farmers and ranchers lower operational risk, provide tangible rewards for the contributions that conservation practices provide in improving soil, air, and water quality; increasing profitability; and making farming and ranching more rewarding in general.
Another important reason to take advantage of expanding federal conservation programs is that the application process itself helps farmers and ranchers see their operations from new perspectives. This alone can alert farmers and ranchers to new market opportunities. For example, transitioning to an organic production system on your farm or ranch may lead to higher value for your crops and livestock. (See the ATTRA publications Entertainment Farming and Agri-Tourism [HTML] [PDF/542K] and Green Markets for Farm Products [PDF/164K].)
Engaging in federal conservation programs can also move your farm or ranch in more sustainable directions. (See the ATTRA publication Sustainable Agriculture: An Introduction [HTML] [PDF/699K].) "Whole" farm or ranch planning — which assesses the goals and potential resources of the farm or ranch — will likely be necessary for farmers or ranchers interested in maximizing the benefits of these conservation programs. Even those unable to take advantage of a particular program can come away with a valuable learning experience through the very process of applying. Learning how federal conservation programs work and going through the application process usually helps you better understand current innovative farming and ranching practices. Also, by engaging in federal conservation programs, you learn to be a more active citizen and help make these programs work better for all farms and ranches in your community, state, and nation.
Finally, if you are of limited resources, socially disadvantaged, or a beginning farmer or rancher, most programs provide either a competitive advantage or higher levels of support. The definitions of these special categories are very specific, however, so make sure you meet the requirements before assuming eligibility. When in doubt regarding eligibility requirements, check with the local office of the federal agency in charge of the specific program. See Resources at the end of this publication.
|Chart courtesy of Conservation Program Design — contrasing working-land and land retirement programs (ERS, 2006)|
The complexity of federal conservation programs — and in particular the application process itself — is perhaps one of the biggest reasons many farmers and ranchers do not use these resources. The programs are voluntary, and many opt out of using the programs simply because the process is often difficult and intimidating. The programs contain an "alphabet soup" of acronyms and bureaucratic jargon particularly difficult to understand for first-time applicants. The goal here is to present a simplified overview that outlines the essential step-by-step process to obtain these resources and benefits. The intent is also to help you understand the general purpose of the programs.
This publication concentrates on resources available from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is the agency most engaged with agricultural conservation practices. The other major USDA division involved in conservation efforts is the Farm Service Agency (FSA). The FSA shares administrative responsibility with the NRCS for the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and the Grassland Reserve Program (GRP). FSA also has responsibility for the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) and the Emergency Conservation Program (ECP).
The first step in accessing these federal resources should be the development of a Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) conservation plan. An NRCS conservation plan is helpful because it involves the agency early in the process. Even if you have done prior planning, it is still important to get NRCS assistance in translating your existing planning efforts into agency language. The local NRCS agent can evaluate your eligibility for the kinds of federal programs available to you.
While this may be the ideal process, finding available NRCS staff to assist with this kind of planning is often difficult. The actual process often begins with the farmer or rancher contacting the local NRCS field office (see Resources) about a specific conservation program. The conservation planning begins with a discussion of the application process and eligibility requirements for that program, rather than with development of a comprehensive conservation plan. Indeed, NRCS recognizes the difficulty in assisting farmers and ranchers in preparing comprehensive conservation plans. In one attempt to address this lack of planning resources, NRCS in 2005 began a special pilot project to bring additional resources to planning efforts. Unfortunately, the pilot project was available in only limited areas of nine states and lasted only one year. As a result of the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008 (otherwise know as the Farm Bill), the NRCS is currently establishing support under the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) to fund what are termed conservation activity plans. Make sure you ask local NRCS about such funding if applying for the EQIP program discussed below.
Barring the availability of assistance from local NRCS staff, however, farmers and ranchers should still put some effort into farm or ranch conservation planning. Doing so prepares applicants to interact effectively with NRCS staff. ATTRA has several resources to help with this kind of planning, available online or at 1-800-346-9140.
|Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS)||Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP)||Financial support for conservation improvements and to meet regulatory requirements|
|Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) — formerly Conservation Security Program||Financial support for current performance and future conservation improvements|
|Farm and Ranchland Protection Programs (FRPP)||Cost-share for farm and ranchland protection through easements|
|Farm Service Agency (FSA)
|Conservation Reserve Program (CRP)||Annual payments to keep sensitive land out of agricultural production|
|Grassland Reserve Program (GRP)||Annual payments to keep land in native grasslands|
|Farm Service Agency (FSA)||Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP)||Annual payments to keep riparian areas out of agricultural production (requires state matching funds)|
|Emergency Conservation Program (ECP)||Rehabilitation of farmland damaged by natural disasters and emergency water conservation measures in periods of severe drought|
Federal conservation programs can be divided into two broad categories: working lands programs and land retirement or easement programs.
The working lands programs provide financial resources. These may be either incentive payments or "cost-share" for farmers or ranchers to implement the practices or build structures on working agriculture lands. NRCS has many quality criteria for resource management and a list of hundreds of technical practice standards that define the minimal acceptable levels for natural resource conservation and environmental protection.
|Note: Check with both local and state-level NRCS staff. Sometimes local staffers do not know that funding differences exist between areas. State-level staffers often have that information.|
Understanding these technical standards can be complicated for people not familiar with NRCS protocols and jargon. However, if you are serious about taking full advantage of the programs, some understanding of these standards and the systems of resource management is important. The major resource for understanding technical standards and the general program evaluation processes is the Field Office Technical Guide (FOTG). This guide is "localized" down to the county level, so get the copy relevant to your farm or ranch locale. NRCS prides itself on soliciting local input for program development. Consequently, there is some variation among available programs, particularly for working lands.
The Farm and Ranchland Protection Program (FRPP) is intended to preserve working farms and ranches. Technically, this program might not be a working-lands conservation program because the program's intent is to protect farm or ranch lands from conversion to suburban or urban development.
Land retirement or easement programs like the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), on the other hand, either permanently or temporarily pay farmers or ranchers to keep land out of agricultural production entirely. Some easement conservation programs do allow certain productive uses of easement land, but generally these programs were established to take land out of substantial productive use.
Another important thing to know before applying for federal conservation programs is that program details can change substantially from state to state and even county to county. As noted above, NRCS has been an agency that prides itself on being adaptable to state and local concerns. The logic of this approach makes some sense. Land use for agriculture varies dramatically in different parts of the country. For instance, the best conservation grazing management practices for southwest Montana are substantially different from those in central Florida.
On the other hand, local determination of program criteria is often a source for confusion about what programs can and do offer. In Montana, for instance, some NRCS programs provide resources for ranchers to improve fish passage around irrigation diversions. But the programs apply only to certain areas of the state, despite the fact that most areas have important fish passage problems. The best way to avoid confusion is to go to the respective state NRCS website for specific details of a program in that state. Another way to clear up confusion is to talk with local and state-level NRCS staff.
Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP)
The newest and perhaps the most confusing federal conservation program is the Conservation Stewardship Program or CSP. As noted earlier, this program was substantially changed by Congress with the passage and subsequent implementation of the 2008 Farm Bill. This program is unique because it rewards farmers and ranchers for current conservation practices, and for putting in place new conservation practices and enhancements over a five-year contract period. This new program provides payment on a per-acre basis for conservation performance, rather than a payment to share in the cost of the adoption of new practices.
The program allows all farmers and ranchers to apply at any time, but to begin a contract in a specific federal fiscal year, there are specific deadlines announced by the NRCS. The 2009 allocation of funds to farmers and ranchers under this program is complete, with over 10,000 contracts awarded, valued at almost $145 million. The 2010 final allocations are not yet available as of this writing (September 2010). Unfortunately, the program allows annual funding for only12.8 million acres per year to be enrolled, so the competition for program funds is significant. Successful applicants for CSP can receive up to $200,000 in benefits over the five-year contract period.
Below is a basic step-by step-outline for application along with important information and forms that can help in getting ready to apply for this program.
Step 1: Examine and/or fill-out the Self-Screening Checklist to assess your eligibility and the requirements of program.
Download the Self Screening Checklist [PDF/98K]
If you have any questions about the questions or your answers contact your local NRCS staff person designated for the CSP.
This screening tool introduces an important term called the "stewardship threshold." The stewardship threshold is defined as the level of natural resource conservation and environmental management required to conserve and improve the quality and condition of a natural resource. This threshold will be measured by a new tool devised for the program called the Conservation Measurement Tool (CMT), discussed below. Meeting these stewardship thresholds is important because applicants must demonstrate at the time of application that they are meeting the stewardship threshold for at least one resource of concern and that they commit to meeting the stewardship threshold for one additional resource of concern during the five-year contract term.
Step 2: Make initial application
The basic application form is: NRCS-CPA-1200 [PDF/33K].
If you have NOT received federal agriculture funding in the past or are a brand new farmer or rancher, you will need to establish yourself as a legal farm by registering with the Farm Service Agency (FSA) and getting a Federal Farm ID number. NRCS and FSA field offices are often located in the same location, known as a Farm Service Center.
Some additional forms that will likely be needed to establish basic eligibility are:
- AD-1026 Highly Erodible Land Conservation and Wetland Conservation Certification (available at local NRCS offices)
- CCC926 Adjusted Gross Income Certification (available at local NRCS offices)
- Special Directive to NRCS to assist farmers and ranchers without previous FSA registration
Step 3: Ranking and the Conservation Measurement Tool (CMT)
After establishing eligibility and submitting an application, the next step is to work with local NRCS staff to establish a ranking score. NRCS staff will use new software called the Conservation Management Tool (CMT) [PDF/177K] to establish your ranking score. CMT is designed to evaluate applicants' existing conservation levels and proposed additional improvements. Broadly, the CSP targets funding for the following:
- To address particular resources of concern in a given watershed or region
- To assist farmers and ranchers to improve soil, water, and air quality
- To provide increased biodiversity and wildlife and pollinator habitat
- To sequester carbon and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to mitigate climate change
- To conserve water and energy
However, each state NRCS office has chosen specific priority resources of concern and these will affect the ranking system in each state. To find out the priorities for each state, contact your NRCS office or look for that information on your state's NRCS website.
It is important to note that this tool is new and not extensively tested. It is expected to be available online, but it is important that you ask many questions of your local NRCS office staff so that you understand exactly what is being asked and that the information is being entered in the tool correctly.
The NRCS has provided a list of conservation and enhancement activities that are part of the CMT.
Once ranked, applicants will be chosen by moving down the list of ranked applicants until the program acreage limit for each state is reached. The total national program acreage is 12.8 million acres for each of the five years of the program.
Step 4: Work out contract payments and details
Payment amounts will be determined by three factors.
- Expected environmental benefits as indicated by the Conservation Measurement Tool
- Costs incurred by the farmer or rancher associated with the planning, design, materials, installation, labor, management, maintenance, or training for conservation activities
- Income forgone by the producer as a result of conservation activities that are undertaken
Overall CSP payments are expected to average $18 per acre nationwide, but the rate will vary by land type, the extent of existing conservation that will be managed and maintained, and the extent of new conservation practices and activities agreed upon. Individual CSP payments will depend on the details of each contract. Payments to contract holders will be made after October 1 of the year the conservation has been accomplished. For example, if the terms of the contract are fulfilled during the spring and summer, the accompanying payments will be made in the fall.
Contract, Field Verification, and Conservation Stewardship Plans
As part of successful applicant contract development, the NRCS is required to visit each applying farm or ranch to verify information provided in the application. In addition, the development of a conservation stewardship plan is required. A conservation stewardship plan is the schedule of the conservation activities to be implemented, managed, or improved during the contract period.
Specialty Crops, Organic Production, and Technical Assistance
The implementation rules for the new CSP require the NRCS to make a special commitment to providing technical assistance to organic and specialty-crop producers. In particular, NRCS has provided the following document, The Organic Crosswalk [PDF/45K], to help organic farmers applying to the program.
Resource-Conserving Crop Rotations
In the new CSP, there is special emphasis on and supplemental funding for applicants who undertake a resource conserving crop rotation. What constitutes such a rotation is still less than clear and will require careful discussion with NRCS field staff in your location.
Size and Program Limitations
To constrain total spending on the program, the new CSP limits the total acreage available to 12.8 billion in each of the five years of the program. In addition, as noted, the law sets a target of an average of $18 per acre nationwide. These limitations may make it difficult for very small farms to reconcile the effort of participation in the program with the ultimate benefit. This issue is a concern for NRCS and they have stated in the implementation rules for the program that they do not want to limit producer participation because of size or type of operation. If you have a smaller farm, discuss this issue with your local NRCS staff.
Socially Disadvantaged, Limited Resource, and Beginning Farmer Benefit
The new (2010) regulatory rules for implementation of the CSP provide the possibility of a minimum payment for farms that both qualify for the program and are operated by socially disadvantaged, Limited Resource, or Beginning Farmers (see definitions above). Please check with your local NRCS office about this possible benefit.
The Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) is the largest NRCS working lands program, with annual budgets around $1 billion since 2002. EQIP provides incentives to farmers and ranchers for two major purposes. First, the program helps farmers and ranchers to improve their conservation practices. Second, the program helps farmers and ranchers to comply (or stay in compliance) with federal environmental regulations such as the Clean Water Act.
For example, EQIP has provided substantial federal resources to assist farmers and ranchers to stay in compliance with regulations in regard to the operation of Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) and Animal Feeding Operations (AFOs). Such support has often included controversial issues involving large-scale dairies and commercial feedlots. Since 2002, the NRCS has been required to try to achieve a target of 60 percent of EQIP expenditures for livestock conservation practices. While not all of that livestock-related EQIP funding has gone to resolve CAFO/AFO issues, a large percentage has. However, despite these environmental regulatory aspects to EQIP, there have been many farmers and ranchers who have improved conservation practices and their bottom lines by participating in this program (see box).
The 2008 Farm Bill introduced a special EQIP organic initiative which particularly supports existing organic farmers and ranchers and those who might want to make the transition to organic production. This special EQIP organic initiative has been in operation just since 2009, and program details are still being fully developed.
Unlike CSP, EQIP has from time to time allocated resources to special sub-programs as determined by NRCS. Currently there are three special regional and national EQIP sub-programs.
- Colorado River Basin Salinity Control Program — This program reduces salinity by preventing salts from dissolving and mixing in the Colorado River.
- Ground and Surface Water Conservation Program — This program focuses attention on conservation practices that result in net saving of ground and surface water as determined by state NRCS offices.
- Klamath Basin Program — This is a locally led conservation effort for farmers, ranchers, tribes, and other private landowners in the Klamath River Basin in northern California and southern Oregon.
These special EQIP sub-programs will not be discussed here, but further information is available from your state NRCS office. Finally, even within states, the leading administrative agents for NRCS, the State Conservationists, can also set aside part of the state EQIP allocations for special projects of importance to an individual state. For instance, in Montana, a special EQIP project was set up to provide resources for the Big Hole River watershed. The drainage has faced severe drought, and a population of Arctic grayling — the last remnant of this trout species in the lower 48 states — may be enhanced through the funding.
Applicants should realize that EQIP is a very competitive program and is under-funded relative to demand by farmers and ranchers (see Figure 2). This means you must make sure to develop a comprehensive plan of the conservation practices integrated into your farm or ranch before you apply for the EQIP. Also, pay close attention to those elements of your plan that fit with the priorities that NRCS has identified as important for funding in the year you wish to apply.
|EQIP Helps Cranberry Growers|
In 2004 and 2005, 13 Wisconsin cranberry growers signed EQIP cost-sharing contracts to help address the unique environmental concerns with surface and ground water quality associated with that crop. Irrigation-water management and pest management are being implemented on all of the participating marshes, and 9 of the 13 contracts also include nutrient management. These three management practices form the basis of comprehensive Resource Management Systems on cranberry marshes. By necessity, cranberries are grown very close to water in order to flood the beds for frost protection and harvest. Cranberries are native to wet soils with typically high water tables. Even with very careful management, nutrients and pesticides may be easily transported to surface and groundwater. Nutrient-management activities are focused on reducing applications of phosphorous fertilizer to protect water quality. Pest management incentive payments are being used to offset the costs associated with implementing integrated pest management (IPM) and to reduce the environmental hazards associated with using high-risk pesticides.
Irrigation water management is focused on increasing irrigation application efficiencies and uniformity of application to conserve water and to limit leaching and run-off of fertilizers and pesticides. Additional conservation efforts being funded through EQIP include erosion control projects, replacing inefficient irrigation systems, and installing irrigation tailwater recovery systems for the recycling and reuse of water.
More than $500,000 in EQIP funding has been obligated to these contracts. These funds will result in conservation efforts in excess of $1 million when labor, equipment, and material costs are included.
There are only three exceptions to EQIP eligibility. First, the applicant must be in compliance with highly erodible land and wetland conservation practices. Known commonly as "sodbuster" and "swampbuster" provisions, these exceptions prevent EQIP from extending benefits to producers who have previously brought highly erodable land and converted wetlands into agricultural production.
|Remember, the NRCS runs on the federal government fiscal cycle of October 1-September 30, and not the calendar year. Funding allocations are available to each state for that fiscal year only.|
Second, individuals or entities that have an average adjusted gross income exceeding $2.5 million for the three tax years preceding application are not eligible. There is an exception to this rule if the individual or entity can document that 75 percent of the adjusted gross income ($1.875 million) came from farming, ranching, or forestry operations. Essentially, this provision limits very wealthy individuals who don't receive income from agricultural and forestry operations from receiving federal conservation benefits.
Third, a person or entity cannot apply for EQIP if a maximum benefit of $450,000 ($300,000 after 2008) has been reached through the program over the past five years. All categories of land use are eligible, including non-industrial forest lands. Interestingly, any land determined to pose a serious threat to soil, air, water, or related resources is also eligible.
Finally, applications are accepted by state NRCS offices year-round, but there are specific dates by which you must have submitted your application in order to be eligible in any particular funding year. Each state sets its own deadlines, so check with your local NRCS agent or state office for the deadlines for your state.
|Map courtesy of USDA/NRCS.|
Determining EQIP Benefits
Benefits are determined by an NRCS evaluation of the farmer's or rancher's application against a set of funding priorities known as the "ranking criteria." These criteria are set at the national, state, and county levels. In some larger states such as California, or where demand for program benefits is high, a "pre-screening" set of selection criteria is often used. As noted, this is a competitive program, and each state has the ability to prioritize which resources are of special concern, even down to the county level.
|The NRCS gets advice on setting these priorities from two governance committees: the state technical advisory committee (state-level) and the "local working groups" (see governance section).|
Thus, each state's set of priorities is different and in any given year may not reflect the needs you have identified in planning for your farm or ranch. However, there is often a fairly wide variety of conservation practices available to applicants and it is often hard to tell without going through the process how your planned changes will be "ranked."
Below is a copy of just one part of the ranking criteria from Reeves County, Texas. This illustrates several aspects of EQIP in Texas. First, the state NRCS — at least in this county — has identified Animal Feeding Operations (AFO/CAFO) issues and salt cedar removal as high-priority concerns. The county group has added priorities related to conservation practices that promote plant health and water-use efficiency. Both the state and county clearly recognize that when limited resource or beginning farmers or ranchers apply, they are entitled to higher benefits (cost-shares). Finally, the county has placed limits on the extent of funding by identifying specific priority practices and assigning points to those practices. Thus, in Reeves County, Texas, a farmer or rancher is clearly at a funding advantage for EQIP if CAFO/AFO issues, salt cedar removal, plant health, and water quantity issues are important to the applicant's farm or ranch conservation plan.
|EQIP Program in Reeves County, Texas, 2006|
The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) offers cost-share assistance to agricultural producers to implement on-farm conservation practices. The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) determines eligible producers for the EQIP program and determines eligible land. Eligible producers may apply for cost-share assistance on conservation practices that will address the resource concern identified by the Local Work Group (LWG).
Reeves County Office Information
Interested agricultural producers may apply in person at the Reeves County USDA Service Center. Applicants may also request EQIP assistance by telephone, fax, e-mail, or letter.
County EQIP Resource Concern:
Priority for Funding:
Eligible Practices and Cost-Share Rates:
Practices will be cost-shared based on the established average cost of the practice. The amount of cost-share earned will be the number of units certified after completion, multiplied by the average cost multiplied by the cost-share percentage.
However, even if these conservation measures are relevant to the applying farmer or rancher, there is still no guarantee that the producer will ultimately be provided EQIP benefits. This is true because the applicant is also competing with every other applicant in all other counties. Ultimately, the state NRCS ranks every applicant according to his or her total criteria points with associated total dollar benefits requested and approves contracts in this order until that state's yearly allocation of EQIP resources is expended.
What this example shows is that applying for EQIP benefits is a little like applying for a grant. The grantor (NRCS) gets to decide the criteria for grant awards, and the applicant must match those criteria in order to increase the probability of acceptance. Also, an application for a single practice change is unlikely to be funded. It is useful to have a holistic plan of all the changes you want to make on your farm or ranch and then apply for every relevant change that will garner the highest number of ranking criteria points possible. While NRCS does not want to encourage what it often refers to as "point shopping," farmers and ranchers must put together the best package possible to realize any benefit. For instance, in Montana there is an EQIP benefit of $3,500 over three years to help farmers or ranchers make the transition to organic production. However, very few farmers or ranchers have received benefits under this option because they often apply only for that benefit and hence are out-competed by farmers and ranchers who present more comprehensive applications with higher total ranking points. Fortunately, this issue, at least for organic producers, has been overcome in part by the development of a special national EQIP organic initiative (details below).
Applicants to EQIP are eligible for up to $300,000 in program benefits. It is unusual for any single annual "contract" to be that high and the limit applies to the total benefits in any previous contracts in the past five years. Thus, if you had received $200,000 in EQIP benefits in the previous five years, you could receive only $100,000 in program benefits for the current year. There is the possibility of receiving up to $450,000 in benefits for projects that provide exceptional environmental benefits, but the process for approval of such a project is more rigorous. As noted earlier, benefits are based on a percentage of the total cost of adopting the conservation practice, up to a maximum of 75 percent. Again, limited resource and beginning farmers and ranchers may receive up to 90 percent cost-share.
Figure 3 is an example from Maine NRCS of how dollar amounts are calculated to determine the total contract benefits. Essentially, if the contract is selected based on ranking criteria, then each practice is applied for, and a total contract benefit package is awarded.
For example, if one of the applicant's "practices" was installation of a composting facility, then the applicant, if successful, would receive $75,000 (60-percent cost-share) to build the facility — assessed by Maine NRCS to cost $125,000. For a successful candidate, this process would continue until all other practices were assessed and a total contract amount set. It is important to remember that contracts can be made for up to 10 years. Payments are made when the practice is completed (adopted) or installed. For example, the development of a compost facility might take several years to complete and would likely require a multi-year EQIP contract.
The benefits of an EQIP contract can be substantial, but getting them requires a real commitment by the applicant. Again, careful planning and knowing program criteria are critical for success.
|Figure 3. 2006 Androscoggin/Sagadahoc Counties, Maine, EQIP Cost Lists.|
|Practice Code||Practice Name||Component||Unit Type||Unit Cost $||Share Rate %|
|560||Access Road||All components excluding crossings||foot||17||75|
|560||Access Road||Stream crossing||no.||55,000||75|
|702||Agrichemical Handling Facility||All components||no.||51,750||75|
|575||Animal Trails & Walkways||All components excluding crossings||foot||17||60|
|575||Animal Trails & Walkways||Stream crossing||no.||55,000||60|
|707||Barnyard Water Management||All components||s.f.||8||75|
|314||Brush Management||Brush Management||acre||55||100|
|326||Clearing and Snagging||Clearing and snagging||foot||50||60|
|317||Composting Facility||All components||no.||125,000||75|
|100||Comprehensive Nutrient Management Plan||Development of CNMP (one time payment)||a.u.||10||100|
|100||Comprehensive Nutrient Management Plan||Implementation of CNMP (one time payment)||a.u.||40||100|
|327||Conservation Cover||Grass establishment||acre||330||60|
|328||Conservation Crop Rotation||Conservation crop rotation||acre||55||100|
|332||Contour Buffer Strips||Grass establishment||acre||330||60|
|330||Contour Farming||All components||acre||22||10|
|340||Cover Crop||Cover crop||acre||55||100|
|324||Critical Area Planting||All components with heavy site prep||acre||800||60|
|342||Deep Tillage||Deep tillage||acre||22||100|
EQIP Organic Initiative
Authorized by Congress in 2008 and first implemented in 2009, this special EQIP initiative has assisted current organic farmers and ranchers as well as those who want to make the transition to organic production. This initiative recognizes that organic production systems have inherent conservation benefits. The initiative was also adopted because NRCS recognized that it had not served organic farmers and ranchers adequately.
In general, the application process is fairly similar to that for general EQIP, but deadlines for application can be different, so it is best to contact your local NRCS office or check the website of the state NRCS office for details. There are four significant differences between the organic EQIP initiative and the general EQIP.
First, the nationwide funding pool is limited to $50 million, and so funding is competitive. Also, the funding pool is further divided into support for transitioning and currently certified organic producers. In 2009, the value of applications was higher than the $50 million available, so there was some competition for funding. As of this writing (2010), applications for funding are below the available $50 million, so most qualified applicants are likely to be supported.
Second, by law the amount of support a transitioning or certified organic producer can receive is significantly less than for those applying for the general EQIP. The maximum payment you can receive for these efforts is $20,000 per year, with no more than $80,000 over a six-year period. EQIP payments are set up by a contract that can span several years. However, if you are an existing certified organic producer, then you can opt out of the special initiative and compete with all other non-organic farmers and ranchers in your state. As noted earlier, the general EQIP is very competitive, but the maximum payment for the general EQIP can be as high as $300,000 over a six-year period (or even up to $450,000 if the applicant can justify the application as having unique and significant environmental benefit). Thus, each applicant needs to decide in which arena to compete.
Third, the range of conservation practices for organic initiative applicants is less than for the general EQIP and also varies by state. According to NRCS policy, each state is expected to provide support for any conservation practice that is likely to be needed by certified or transitioning producers, but the specific list does vary by state. The only way to know for sure what is offered is to check with your local or state NRCS office.
Finally, each state NRCS office provides separate payment schedules to support practice adoption by certified organic and transitioning producers. The reason for this is that in many cases there are increased costs involved in conservation practice adoptions in organic systems, and each state estimates these differences. Again, it is necessary to check with the local or state NRCS to understand these cost differences.
Though the Farm and Ranch Land Protection Program (FRPP) is essentially an easement program, it is included in this publication because it provides resources to keep farms and ranches as working lands by protecting them from being converted to other uses. The program is unique in that it is only indirectly supportive of conservation practices. As noted below, some of the eligibility requirements of the program require prior conservation efforts. Nonetheless, the benefits essentially support an easement. The program is also unique in that NRCS matches resources only with other non-federal entities. These entities are state, tribal, and local governments and non-governmental easement programs. For instance, the American Farmland Trust (AFT) has an agricultural easement program, and a farmer or rancher could enter into an agreement with AFT and then together with AFT could apply to FRPP for help to support the total cost of the easement. The program is competitive and the demand for FRPP resources far exceeds supply. Funding for the program varies across the United States (see Figure 4). Finally, the program also assesses the historical and archeological significance of the easement property.
|Map courtesy of NRCS/USDA.|
The FRPP is a competitive program, and each state NRCS office has particular eligibility requirements for the program. However, each applicant has to meet the following minimum set of national criteria.
- Does the farm or ranch contain prime, unique, and productive soil, or historical or archeological resources?
- Is the farm or ranch included in a pending offer from a state, tribal, local government, or non-governmental organization easement program?
- Is the land privately owned?
- Is the farm or ranch covered by a conservation plan for highly erodible land?
- Is it large enough to sustain agricultural production?
- Does the farm or ranch have access to markets for its products?
- Do the farms or ranches that surround the applying farm or ranch support long-term agricultural production?
- Does the owner meet the Adjusted Gross Income (AGI) limitation? (This is the same income limitation for all other NRCS programs.)
FRPP Benefit Determination
The NRCS share of the cost of the easement cannot be larger than 50 percent of the appraised market value. The applying farmer or rancher can contribute up to 25 percent of the cost with the cooperating entity contributing up to another 25 percent. The total benefit calculation includes all partners to the agreement and available funding and the selection is made by the state conservationist in each state. The size of the benefit varies depending on the value of the easement. For instance, in Montana in 2005, five easements were awarded under FRPP at a value of $2,221,000.
Being awarded an NRCS working-lands conservation program contract is really only the beginning of the process. NRCS working-lands contracts are legally binding and commit you to fulfilling your end of the bargain. With contracts lasting in some cases 10 years, it is important to be absolutely clear on your commitments. By the same token, NRCS has also made significant commitments. During the implementation phase, you need to work regularly with your local NRCS agent to make sure you are making timely progress on your contract.
There may be disputes about either the fairness of the application process or about your obligations during the implementation of the contract. Federal law does provide for formal processes of appeal. While NRCS works hard to make sure you understand the details of a program contract prior to implementation, knowing your rights for appealing decisions is important.
The appeals process — like the programs themselves — is complex. The first thing to be clear about is the basis for your appeal. For instance, if you appeal the rejection of your application for program benefits, remember that the programs are competitive, and losing in that competition is not itself a reason to appeal. The general basis for an appeal includes the following.
- Denial of participation in a program
- Compliance with program requirements
- The payment or amount of payments or other program benefits to a program participant
- Technical determinations or technical decisions that affect the status of land even though eligibility for USDA benefits may not be affected
There are specific reasons that an appeal can be rejected by NRCS.
- General program requirements applicable to all participants (i.e., you cannot make your farm or ranch a "special" case)
- Science-based formulas and criteria. For example, eligibility for CSP is based on a certain minimum performance score. You cannot appeal your eligibility on the basis that NRCS has chosen the wrong performance criteria to use. (However, if you think the wrong information was used to calculate an performance score, then an appeal may be warranted.)
- The fairness or constitutionality of federal laws. For example, you can't argue that it is unfair that you can't apply for the CSP because you don't happen meet the statutory definition of a legal farming entity.
- Technical standards or criteria that apply to all persons
- State Technical Committee membership decisions made by the State Conservationist
- Procedural technical decisions relating to program administration
- Denials of assistance due to the lack of funds or authority
Once you have established a basis for an appeal, determine whether you are appealing a "technical determination" or a "program decision." An appeal of a technical determination challenges the correctness of "the status and condition of the natural resources and cultural practices based on science and best professional judgment of natural resources professionals concerning soils, water, air, plants, and animals." For example, the stocking rate of cattle on a particular range or pasture could be a contested technical decision.
|Chapter XII refers to the title of the Food Security Act of 1985, when the current appeals process was established|
An appeal of a program decision, on the other hand, challenges the correctness of the determination of eligibility or how the program is administered and implemented. For example, if the local NRCS is wrong in its determination that your farm or ranch is ineligible to apply for the CSP, then you could appeal that program eligibility decision.
After you have decided the basis for an appeal and the type of appeal, the next step is to make sure the program you applied for is a "Chapter XII" program. All the programs outlined in this publication are Chapter XII programs. Check with your local or state NRCS office for a list of non-Chapter XII programs (See Resources).
To begin the preliminary phase of the appeal process, ask in writing for one of three actions to take place within 30 days after notification of the decision you wish to contest.
- Make a request for a field visit and reconsideration of an NRCS decision.
- Ask for mediation of the contested decision.
- Appeal directly to the local Farm Service Agency (FSA) — usually county-based — for a reconsideration of a decision.
Which of these three routes to take in the appeals process is up to you. It may be hard to evaluate which is of greater benefit. Even though the first choice explicitly provides for a "field visit," all others will require a field visit anyway. The reconsideration and mediation processes should be completed within 30 days of the request.
Finally, even after these appeals are exhausted, you can still appeal a decision to the National Appeals Division (NAD) of USDA. This agency is independent of the other USDA agencies and provides participants with the opportunity to have a neutral review of an appeal. NAD can make independent findings but also must apply laws and regulations of the respective agency to the case.
The conservation programs outlined in this publication are complex; access to these resources requires significant effort and an investment of time and energy. The complexities of the programs are in part due to sincere efforts by a large federal agency to make the programs locally relevant. If you do not like the way programs are designed and implemented, NRCS is unique in that it also provides at least two ways for you to be engaged in changing them.
Local Working Groups
Local working groups are essentially a form of local governance of federal conservation programs. The meetings are open to the general public and membership is open to any organization with broad interest in agriculture. The meetings are convened by the local conservation district in each state, and the purpose of the group is to provide advice to the NRCS on conservation programs. Contact your local NRCS office about the meeting schedule in your area. As a farmer or rancher, you can attend these meetings and offer public comment on the decisions being made. Incumbents of any of several local government offices usually serve as leaders of these groups. Additionally, the working groups provide advice in the following general areas:
- Conditions of the natural resources and the environment
- The local application process, including ranking criteria and application periods
- Identifying the educational and training needs of producers
- Cost-share rates and payment levels and methods of payment
- Eligible conservation practices
- The need for new, innovative conservation practices
- Public outreach and information efforts
- Program performance indicators (Montana NRCS, 2006)
State Technical Committees
Each state NRCS office has a State Technical Committee (STC). The committee is comprised of groups or individuals who represent a wide variety of natural resource issues. If you wish to serve on your STC, either as an individual or as a representative of a group, you must write a letter to your State Conservationist explaining your interest and credentials. Several federal agencies must by law be represented on the committee and many non-governmental and state agencies are encouraged to participate as well. Public notification of meetings must be made no later than 14 days prior to the meeting, and the State Conservationist is required to prepare meeting agendas and necessary background information for the meetings. There is no requirement for any number of meetings in any given year, but any USDA agency can request that a meeting be held.
There is an extensive list of conservation programs that the STC has responsibilities to address. The list is available on the Internet or by contacting your local or state NRCS office (see Resources). However, it is important to remember that the STC is only an advisory body and has no legal enforcement or implementation authority. Nonetheless, members of the STCs are generally the leaders of agriculture in a particular state. It would be difficult for any State Conservationist not to give strong consideration to the recommendations of this important group.
Final Word: Is Conservation a Public Good?
There are some farmers, ranchers, and agricultural and conservation organizations that have had philosophical issues with the very intent of working lands conservation programs. Regarding the CSP, the concept of rewarding farmers and ranchers for their current conservation efforts is fundamentally different from all other federal conservation programs. Some have argued that if some farmers and ranchers are already providing these benefits without public support, then why should scarce public resources be provided to continue these efforts? (Batie, 2006). Others have argued that good stewardship by farmers and ranchers provides a public good or investment. This position holds that we all benefit from these stewardship efforts, and public incentives are required to continue good stewardship of the land and, more importantly, to encourage those who do not provide these public benefits to do so (Kemp, 2005).
The EQIP program supports farmers and ranchers who move toward improved conservation practices that protect natural resources and the environment. The additional social benefits seem clearer than with the CSP. However, EQIP also has a role in regulating environmental damages from agriculture by ending poor farming and ranching practices before governmental enforcement actions are imposed. Consequently, EQIP is often criticized for rewarding the worst environmental actors in the agriculture system.
These issues, like many others in our democratic system, strike at the broader issue of the proper role of government in protecting both the environment and the future productive capacity of natural resources. Even with the substantial increases in federal conservation resources since 2002, conservation programs still only represent about eight percent of all USDA expenditures. So even at this higher level of activity, the federal government is far more engaged in agriculture and food systems in ways not related to the protection of our agricultural resource base and natural environment. Perhaps conservation efforts need to be of even higher priority in the United States.
ERS, 2006. Contrasting Working-Land and Land Retirement Programs [PDF/411K]. Economic Research Service, USDA, Economic Brief No. 4.
Kemp, Loni, 2005. Conservation Investments: Green Payments Can Replace a Broken Policy [PDF/720K]. Conservation Planner, Vol. X, No. 3, pp. 6-7, Minnesota Project.
Lundgren, Britt, Jody Biergiel, Meaghan Donovan, Christine Lee, and Kathleen Merrigan. 2006. The Conservation Security Program: Rewards and Challenges for New England Farmers [PDF/2.8M]. Tufts University and American Farmland Trust.
This 80-plus member coalition offers the latest information on federal conservation policy. A 2009 publication, Farmers' Guide to the Conservation Stewardship Program [PDF/589K], is particularly useful for more information on the CSP.
Internet, Intranet, and Phone
The NRCS has an excellent intranet-based information system. The national NRCS website links to all state NRCS websites. In turn state websites link to local NRCS office websites if the local office maintains a site. Starting at the national NRCS site is the best way to begin a search of all the programs and services the NRCS provides.
If you do not have Internet access, your phone book should list your local county NRCS office in the federal government section. If not, call the following state offices to get the phone number of your local office.
State Office Contacts
The Natural Resources Conservation Service has offices at state, area, and district levels. For information on conservation for a specific state or county, phone the State Conservationist listed below.
|Alabama||William (Bill) Puckettemail@example.com|
|Alaska||Robert N. Jonesfirstname.lastname@example.org|
|Arizona||David L. McKayemail@example.com|
|California||Lincoln E. (Ed) Burtonfirstname.lastname@example.org|
|Caribbean Area||Edwin Almodovar||787-766-5206 email@example.com|
|Colorado||James Allen Greenfirstname.lastname@example.org|
|Georgia||James E. Tillman Sr.||email@example.com|
|Hawaii||Lawrence T. Yamamoto||808-541-2600 firstname.lastname@example.org|
|Illinois||William J. Gradleemail@example.com|
|Indiana||Jane E. Hardistyfirstname.lastname@example.org|
|Kansas||Eric C. Banksemail@example.com|
|Kentucky||Thomas A. Perrinfirstname.lastname@example.org|
|Louisiana||Kevin D. Nortonemail@example.com|
|Maryland||Jon F. Hall||410-757-0861 firstname.lastname@example.org|
|Massachusetts||Elvis Graves (acting)||email@example.com|
|Michigan||Garry D. Leefirstname.lastname@example.org|
|Minnesota||Don A. Balounemail@example.com|
|Mississippi||Homer L. Wilkesfirstname.lastname@example.org|
|Nebraska||Stephen K. Chickemail@example.com|
|New Hampshire||Richard Ellsmore||603-868-7581 firstname.lastname@example.org|
|New Jersey||Thomas Drewesemail@example.com|
|New Mexico||Dennis L. Alexanderfirstname.lastname@example.org|
|New York||Astor Boozeremail@example.com|
|North Carolina||J.B. Martin, Jr.||firstname.lastname@example.org|
|North Dakota||Paul Sweeneyemail@example.com|
|Ohio||Randy Jordan (acting)||firstname.lastname@example.org|
|Oklahoma||Ronald. L. Hilliardemail@example.com|
|Pacific Basin||Lawrence T. (Larry) Yamamotofirstname.lastname@example.org|
|Rhode Island||Phoukham (Pooh) Vongkhamdy||401-823-1300, ext. email@example.com|
|South Carolina||Ann Englishfirstname.lastname@example.org|
|South Dakota||Janet L. Oertlyemail@example.com|
|Utah||Sylvia A. Gillenfirstname.lastname@example.org|
|Vermont||Vicki M. Drewemail@example.com|
|Virginia||John A. (Jack) Brickerfirstname.lastname@example.org|
|Washington||Roylene Rides at the Dooremail@example.com|
|West Virginia||Kevin Wickeyfirstname.lastname@example.org|
|Wisconsin||Ivan Dozier (acting)||608-662-4422||608-662-4430||ivan.dozier@.wi.usda.gov|
|Wyoming||J. Xavier Montoyaemail@example.com|
Federal Resources for Sustainable Farming and Ranching
By Jeff Schahczenski
NCAT Agriculture Specialist
Tracy Mumma and Paul Williams, Editors
Amy Smith, Production
Adrienne Herren, HTML Production
This page was last updated on: April 26, 2012