Now that President Donald Trump has signed the 2018 Farm Bill into law, NACD’s Government Affairs Team will be releasing a series of blog posts to break down the bill in more detail with the expected changes folks can expect on the ground as USDA works to implement the new law.
The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) is one of the bedrock conservation programs responsible for introducing many farmers, ranchers and forest-land owners to conservation. As such, it was a priority for NACD to ensure
EQIP continues to receive a robust investment in the 2018 Farm Bill. The final conference agreement not only maintains this investment but provides incremental increases to the funds available to the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and, ultimately, to landowners. Below is an in-depth breakdown of what this funding means and what policy reforms were included in the 2018 Farm Bill.
Over the course of the 2014 Farm Bill, EQIP received mandatory funding ranging from $1.35 billion in fiscal year 2014 to $1.75 billion in fiscal year 2018. Altogether, the 2014 Farm Bill authorized $8 billion to EQIP over that bill’s life. The 2018 Farm Bill starts in fiscal year 2019 at $1.75 billion and increases it up to $2.025 billion by the end of the 2018 Farm Bill in fiscal year 2023. In total, this represents $9.125 billion, an over $1 billion increase in the federal government’s investment into EQIP.
The new bill creates an incentive contract to further encourage adoption of conservation practices focused on management-type activities rather than structural practices. These contracts would be targeted to priority resource concerns identified at the local level. Payments would be made for adopting and installing incentive practices and managing, maintaining, and improving the incentive practices for the duration of the contract. These new incentive contracts will be no less than 5 years and no more than 10 years.
In laying out what type of practices may quality for these incentives, the conference report states that they: “anticipate incentive practices with broad resource benefits (including, but not limited to, cover crops, transition to resource conserving crop rotations, and incorporation of precision agriculture technologies into agriculture operations) will be available to producers within the program. Similarly, a broad suite of incentive practices relating to grazing lands and forest lands will be available to incentivize increased levels of conservation around locally-established resource priorities.”
Under the 2014 Farm Bill, 5 percent of all EQIP funds had to be used for practices that benefited wildlife habitat. This was done due to the 2014 Farm Bill’s elimination of the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP). The House version kept this carve out the same, while the Senate version increased this set-aside to 10 percent of all EQIP funds. Ultimately, the final agreement kept the Senate level of 10 percent of all EQIP funds, doubling the previous carve out.
The conference report also states it is Congress’s intent that wildlife-focused EQIP contracts should be long-term contracts, though the statute just repeats that these contracts can be up to ten years.
According to the conference report: “Wildlife practices often diminish agronomic value on working agricultural lands because they have real implementation costs and increase operational risks by reducing yield. These practices are therefore highly unlikely to be sustained by farmers without longer-term, incentives-based partnerships with NRCS.”
Soil Testing and Remediation Practices
In an effort to improve the farm bill’s focus on soil health, the law provides assistance to test not only the biological and physiological health of the soil, but also to test for contaminants, including heavy metals and “volatile organic compounds.” Additionally, USDA is directed to provide funding to also conduct scientifically-based soil remediation practices to mitigate the presence of these contaminants if found. Additional education and outreach is also encouraged by Congress for those landowners that are not currently aware of the methods available to address soil contamination.
Prior to this farm bill, funding for improvements to irrigation structures aimed at water efficiencies could only occur on the land of the producer because only the producer could be eligible to receive an EQIP contract. Irrigation infrastructure that was not on the producer’s land, but that ultimately provides water to the producer, was not eligible. This limited the effectiveness of overall improvements to water efficiency. With the new farm bill, USDA may now enter into a contract with a state, irrigation districts, groundwater management districts and acequias.
These entities can now make improvements to irrigation structures that will benefit producers but also help conserve our nation’s limited supply of surface and groundwater. In order to ensure EQIP cost-share assistance – made available under this provision – does not disadvantage other regions and conservation concerns, the bill specifically states the Secretary is not authorized to modify the process for determining the annual allocation of EQIP funding to states. Rather, these efforts should be addressed within each state’s locally-led priorities with input from the State Technical Committee.
Top Ten Practices
The final bill authorizes increased payments for certain practices deemed more environmentally beneficial, as determined by each state in consultation with the State Technical Committee. The goal of these increased payments is to make these practices more attractive to producers to increase their adoption. These practices must address specific causes of impairment relating to excessive nutrients in groundwater or surface water, address the conservation of water to advance drought mitigation and declining aquifers, meet other environmental priorities and other priority resource concerns identified in habitat or other area restoration plans, or be geographically targeted to address a natural resource concern in a specific watershed.
Conservation Innovation Grants (CIGs)
CIGs are competitive grants focused on innovation of resource conservation funded through the EQIP program. The 2018 Farm Bill reauthorizes the program with several reforms. The bill allows CIG projects to not only involve producers, but now involve community colleges if the demonstration project is carried out on the college’s land. Two new goals for CIGs were also created. First, that a project can partner with farmers to develop innovative practices for urban or indoor operations and second, that a project may utilize edge of field practices in order to quantify their impacts.
The 2018 Farm Bill also creates new on-farm conservation innovation trials and provides $25 million annually. These new trials are designed to increase involvement by producers to test new and innovative practices at field scale. The program is aimed at reducing the risk producers may feel when they test new practices.
The agreement also includes a new soil health demonstration pilot project within the above-mentioned on-farm conservation innovation trials. This pilot program will aim to establish protocols for measuring soil health improvements where conservation practices have been applied and to report to Congress a study regarding the changes in soil health and the economic outcomes generated as a result of the conservation practices being applied. Congress intends for this pilot program to be conducted across a wide array of soil types, cropping history and water availability.
Tags: 2018 Farm Bill