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Despite Billion-Dollar Budgets, Conservation Programs Cannot Meet Producer Demand

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Thousands of producers who hope to implement more conservation practices on their farms are lining up for government assistance through the Environmental Quality Incentives and Conservation Stewardship programs, so that the Department of Agriculture touts the promise of climate-smart agriculture as a climate change mitigation.

But these programs, despite their billion-dollar budgets, are not equipped to meet the demand, forcing the agency to turn away the majority of applicants.

EQIP, bolstered in the 2018 Farm Bill with a 10-year budget increase of more than $1 billion, was only able to accept 27% of the 33,701 farmers who applied for contracts in 2020, according to statistics compiled by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, an agricultural think tank. CSP, which effectively saw its 10-year budget cut by $409 million in 2018, only awarded contracts to 25% of its 27,110 applicants in 2020.

“It’s a pretty competitive process,” said Natural Resources Conservation Service chief Terry Cosby, who oversees the agency’s programs.

Congress first established EQIP in the 1996 Farm Bill, merging other conservation programs that existed at the time. With a budget of $130 million, the program authorized NRCS to “provide technical assistance, cost-sharing payments, incentive payments and education” to producers who signed contracts promising to implement new environmental practices on their operations.

Since then, the program has grown, using billions of dollars to offer growers 1- to 10-year contracts for adding new farming techniques like cover crops, no-till and controlled grazing. , or for the purchase of new fences and new irrigation equipment.

But that money must be allocated to all 50 states, while following specific instructions set out in the 2018 Farm Bill. Half of that must be spent on livestock operations, at least 10% must be spent on wildlife habitat and 10% to water source protection. Another 10% is split evenly between socially disadvantaged farmers or herders and beginning farmers and herders.

Cosby said Agri Pulse that under the current $1.8 billion NRCS budget, the agency can only fund about 25% of the claims that come into each state. Program allocations are expected to increase to a peak of $2.2 billion by 2023, which should allow more producers to access the program.

“Unfortunately, we are unable to fund all contracts,” Crosby said. “We hope that as more funds become available, we will be able to do this.”

California and Texas received the most EQIP funding in 2020, while smaller states like New Hampshire and Rhode Island received the least, according to a Agri Pulse analyse of NRCS data.

EQIP_contract_map.pngThe California office of the NRCS received $121 million in 2020, which helped fund the 1,473 producers who signed contracts in the state. Texas, which signed 2,991 contracts with producers, received $120 million.

New Hampshire and Rhode Island, on the other hand, received just $6.7 million and $4.6 million, respectively. The New Hampshire NRCS office awarded 266 contracts to producers in 2020, while the Rhode Island office awarded 105.

An EQIP contract, voluntarily entered into by farmers, may cover a certain practice or the purchase of certain items specific to that farm. Hunter Carpenter, senior director of public policy at the Agricultural Retailers Association, said it was important the program maintained its voluntary, farm-by-farm approach going forward.

“These programs have to fit or be adaptable to the needs of the farmer on that particular field,” Carpenter said. “These programs are not one size fits all.”

Cover crops were by far the most popular practice used by farmers under the EQIP program in 2020, with 79,014 contracts awarded to fund them. Nutrient management practices were covered by 22,415 contracts, while prescribed grazing, fencing and installation of watering facilities were covered by 17,224, 16,848 and 12,715 projects, respectively.

Producers can submit an EQIP application at any time, but to have a chance of getting timely funding, they must do so before state-specified deadlines. Their applications are then ranked according to criteria developed by their national NRCS conservationist, with contracts going to the highest ranked applications.

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But EQUIP’s budget limits leave many producers who have already gone through the often lengthy application process — including some who have already started work on their projects — without contracts.

“Having to wait months and months and then finding out it just wasn’t funded is a challenge,” said Jorgen Rose, manager of habitat sustainability and policy at Practical Farmers of Iowa. “It’s frustrating for producers.”

The CSP, which was created in the 2002 Farm Bill and then revamped and renamed in 2008, is geared more toward growers who have already implemented certain conservation practices in previous years and are looking to use more of them.

The program generally requires a longer-term commitment than EQIP, with growers signing five-year contracts to not only maintain already established conservation practices, but also to adopt new ones. While the EQIP generally pays for a practice once it is completed, the CSP provides annual payments for the duration of the contract.

“It’s kind of a unique thing among programs – getting people to think about the whole agricultural reality of their conservation efforts and looking at tons of different ways to tinker with that,” said Jesse Womack, policy specialist at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. .

But the effectiveness of CSP has been a constant point of debate in previous farm bills, with members of the House Agriculture Committee even proposing to eliminate the program in 2018. While the program was eventually kept alive in the final version of the bill, it saw a decrease in its overall budget.

South Dakota, Arkansas, Mississippi and Minnesota received the most Financing of the PSC in 2020, while Connecticut, Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands and New Jersey received the fewest.

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More than $203 million was allocated to South Dakota that year for 90 contracts, while Mississippi received $188 million for 114 contracts. Mississippi and Arkansas both received about $170 million and had 114 and 101 contracts, respectively.

In contrast, New Jersey received the least funding, with $643,300 earmarked for four contracts. Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, both overseen by the NRCS Caribbean office, received a combined total of $754,800 for 10 contracts, while New Jersey received $796,200 for four contracts.

Rose said the competitive ranking system used by the CSP can become frustrating for farmers who cannot come up with new practices to try on the farm and, therefore, have less chance of getting funding from the program.

“They’re basically running out of new things to do on the farm, so they can’t rank high enough to get a renewal or get a CSP contract in the first place,” Rose said.

With both programs facing a growing backlog, groups like Practical Farmers of Iowa, the National Milk Producers Federation and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition said Agri Pulse they want to see Congress increase their funding in next year’s Farm Bill.

“We’re really concerned to see some pretty dramatic levels of oversubscription that increased after the 2018 Farm Bill,” Womack said. “It really seems like we’re not putting our money where our mouth is in terms of supporting farmers who are willing to do good conservation.”

The Farm Retailers Association, however, wants Congress to take a closer look at why this backlog exists before deciding on a fix. The group, according to Carpenter, also supports increasing program payments at a rate consistent with inflation.

“We’ve seen record inflation numbers over the past two years and it looks to be getting worse,” Carpenter said. “We think these payments to farmers should reflect that.”

As Congress continues to focus on climate-smart farming practices, the NMPF also wants lawmakers to add more options for livestock producers, who seek to reduce the environmental impact of their feed management systems to animals and manure.

“Our farmers use NRCS programs, but half of the offerings don’t really focus on the areas of manure management and feed management, which will have a big impact on reducing carbon emissions and emissions. greenhouse gases in general for dairy products,” said Paul. Bleiberg, senior vice president of government relations. “So we think there’s a lot to be done to fill some of those gaps.”

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