Policy Update: USDA Releases New Climate-Smart Program Opportunities
On Monday, USDA announced several actions they plan to take as part of the Biden Administration’s commitment to climate-smart agriculture and to helping agricultural producers adopt additional conservation practices on their land. AFT put out a statement applauding these steps which can be found here.
AFT is especially pleased to see NRCS invest $38 million into a new EQIP Cover Crop Initiative in 11 states, which will offer a streamlined, rapid EQIP contract approval process. Last November, AFT urged the Biden Administration to adopt a USDA Cover Crop Initiative as a part of our 2021 Transition Recommendations, which included recommendations to increase EQIP’s focus on cover crops.
Read below for more information (summarized from USDA’s press release):
Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) Cover Crop Initiative
NRCS is investing $38 million through the new targeted EQIP Cover Crop Initiative in 11 states (AR, CA, CO, GA, IA, MI, MS, OH, PA, SC, SD) to help agricultural producers mitigate climate change through the adoption of cover crops. States were selected for this initial pilot based on their demonstrated demand for additional support for the cover crop practice. The initiative is aimed at improving soil health through a targeted, rapid, and streamlined application and contract approval process. NRCS will continue to build on this framework and streamlined application process to support producers across the country.
Cover crops offer agricultural producers a natural and inexpensive climate solution through their ability to sequester atmospheric carbon dioxide into soils. Cover crops can provide an accelerated, positive impact on natural resource concerns. In fiscal 2021, NRCS provided technical and financial assistance to help producers plant 2.3 million acres of cover crops through EQIP.
Sign-up dates will be determined at the state-level, and applications will be selected for funding by Feb. 11, 2022.
Conservation Incentive Contracts
Conservation Incentive Contracts address priority resource concerns, including sequestering carbon and improving soil health in high-priority areas. Through these contracts, NRCS works with producers to improve practices such as irrigation water management, feed management, and residue and tillage management that target resource concerns, including soil and water quality, available water, and soil erosion. Contracts offer producers annual incentive payments to implement management practices as well as conservation evaluation and monitoring activities to help manage, maintain and improve priority natural resource concerns within state high-priority areas and build on existing conservation efforts.
Conservation Incentive Contracts last five years. The 2018 Farm Bill created the new Conservation Incentive Contract option, and it was piloted in 2021 in four states.
Farmers for Soil Health Partnership
To complement the Cover Crop Initiative, NRCS is also announcing a new partnership with Farmers For Soil Health, an initiative of the United Soybean Board, National Corn Growers Association, and National Pork Board. Farmers For Soil Health works to advance use of soil health practices – especially cover crops – on corn and soybean farms. The initiative has a goal of doubling the number of corn and soybean acres using cover crops to 30 million acres by 2030. Other partners include the National Association of Conservation Districts, Soil Health Institute, and The Sustainability Consortium.
Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) Re-Enrollment Option
NRCS updated CSP to allow an agricultural producer to immediately re-enroll in the program following an unfunded application to renew an existing contract. Previously, if a CSP participant did not re-enroll the year their contract expired, they were ineligible for the program for two years. This ineligibility was imposed on CSP participants even if their failure to sign a renewal contract was due to the unavailability of funds, which is beyond their control. USDA is now waiving this two-year ineligibility restriction for all CSP applications.
This year, producers renewed 2,600 CSP contracts covering 3.4 million acres. Applicants with unfunded fiscal 2022 CSP renewals will receive letters this month, notifying them they are automatically eligible to apply for future CSP funding opportunities, rather than needing to wait two years to reapply.