By Eric Hansen
The 2018 Farm Bill was passed nearly two years ago, and efforts to implement this piece of legislation still continue today. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has been working hard to write the regulations necessary to update its programs and incorporate new provisions from the farm bill ever since it was signed into law. In the past few weeks, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has finalized the regulations for two of the biggest conservation programs in the farm bill – the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP).
Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP)
CSP provides financial assistance to producers who have already begun to implement conservation on their land and are committed to doing more. Producers must have enrolled their entire operation in the program and have already addressed two priority resource concerns, as well as commit to addressing another priority resource concern over the life of their five-year contract. CSP is a competitive program, and only producers that commit to achieving the highest level of conservation are awarded contracts. With over 70 million acres enrolled, it is the largest conservation program in the United States.
The 2018 Farm Bill made some significant changes, including funding cuts to CSP. Changes to the program include:
- Removing the requirement of $18 average payment per acre;
- Eliminating automatic renewals in the program;
- Authorizing a few special “initiatives” with increased payment rates, including a comprehensive conservation plan, cover crops, resource crop rotations and advanced grazing management;
- Changing application ranking to focus more on the outcomes of practices;
- Directing the secretary to streamline and coordinate EQIP and CSP and to manage the program to enhance soil health; and
- Creating a new “Grasslands Conservation Initiative” within CSP, intended to protect grazing lands and improve soil, water and wildlife resources on land with base acres that have not been planted in 10 years.
Most of these changes were included in NRCS’s Interim Rule (draft regulations) that was released for public comment this past winter. This Interim Rule has governed the operations of the program for the past year, and the final regulations recently released by NRCS mirror this rule closely.
However, NRCS did make a few important changes in the final regulations. In response to NACD’s comments, NRCS strengthened the role of Local Working Groups (LWG) and state and local input in the program. The final regulations align CSP with the locally-led process in EQIP. The final regulations also increase the focus on soil health within CSP and allow a cooperator to renew their contract as many times as they are able.
Environmental Quality Incentives Programs (EQIP)
EQIP is one of the bedrock conservation programs responsible for introducing many farmers, ranchers and forestland 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. Unlike CSP, EQIP received a boost in funding in the 2018 Farm Bill. Other changes to the program include:
- Authorizing new conservation activity plans, including conservation planning assessment, soil health planning, resource-conserving, crop rotation planning, and precision conservation management planning;
- Authorizing soil testing and soil remediation as a practice;
- Cutting the livestock set-aside from 60 percent to 50 percent and increasing the wildlife set aside from five percent to 10 percent annually; and
- Retaining many of the other “carve-outs” or “set-asides” in the program, which makes it more difficult for program priorities to be set at the local level.
Like CSP, these changes were made in the Interim Rule that NRCS released last winter for public comment. NRCS made a few changes with the final rule. These changes included two clarifications supporting NACD’s priorities. First, the final rule helps landowners with expiring Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) contracts to implement an EQIP contract on that land as it re-enters production. Second, it ensures that EQIP-funded Comprehensive Nutrient Management Plans can be implemented progressively and not all at once.
While work on regulations for these two programs has been completed, NACD is still waiting for the final regulations for several more programs. USDA is still finalizing the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP), Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP).
NACD expects these regulations to be released in the coming months. Fortunately, USDA is still able to continue implementing these programs under the existing regulations as long as necessary. While the regulation-writing process can be lengthy, cooperators at the local level should see NRCS and Farm Service Agency (FSA) working as normal.