By Max Fisher, Vice President of Economics and Government Relations
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) on Oct. 23 released updated rules for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) to reflect changes made to the program by the 2018 farm law.
Through EQIP, producers are incentivized to adopt conservation practices, such as cover crops, nutrient management, forest stand improvement, prescribed grazing, irrigation efficiency improvement, and water quality improvement practices. There are more than 150 conservation practices for producers and USDA accepts EQIP applications on a continuous basis. However, EQIP is routinely oversubscribed and not all willing producers are funded.
The 2018 farm law increased annual EQIP funding from $1.5 billion to $1.84 billion. From 2014-18, more than 60 percent of EQIP funds went to livestock-related practices, but the 2018 farm law reduced this target to 50 percent. The reduction in the livestock-funding allocation was attributable in part due to the growing political influence of wildlife groups, which succeeded in attaining a requirement that at least 10 percent of EQIP funds be dedicated to wildlife habitat conservation.
The conservation priority concerns for EQIP include soil quality, water quality and quantity, plants, energy, wildlife habitat, air quality and increased weather volatility. Specifically, EQIP contracts address the following natural resource objectives:
- Reduction of nonpoint source pollution, such as nutrients, sediment, pesticides, or excess salinity in impaired watersheds consistent with total maximum daily loads;
- reduction of ground and surface water contamination;
- reduction of contamination from agricultural sources, such as animal feeding operations;
- conservation of ground and surface water resources, including improvement of irrigation efficiency and increased resilience against drought and weather volatility;
- reduction of emissions, such as particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds, and ozone precursors and depleters that contribute to air-quality impairment violations of the National Ambient Air Quality Standards;
- reduction in soil erosion and sedimentation from unacceptable levels and improvement of soil health on eligible land;
- promotion of at-risk species habitat conservation including development and improvement of wildlife habitat; and
- energy conservation to help save fuel, improve efficiency of water use, maintain production, and protect soil and water resources by more efficiently using fertilizers and pesticides.
In its recently released rule, USDA made the following updates to EQIP:
- Expanded EQIP eligibility to water management entities, like irrigation districts and groundwater management districts, and established $900,000 contract limits for water management entities. (The contract limit for most other types of EQIP contracts is $450,000).
- Created incentive contracts, which address up to three priority resource concerns within targeted watersheds and other high-priority landscapes. While typical EQIP contracts last five years, these contracts last five to 10 years.
- Created an advance payment option for historically underserved producers.
- Raised the payment cap for producers participating in the Organic Initiative to $140,000 for contracts entered into for fiscal years 2019 through 2023. (Previously, it was $20,000 per year and $80,000 for any six-year period).
- Expanded the Conservation Innovation Grant Program, which is funded through EQIP, to include opportunities for on-farm conservation innovation trials and soil health demonstration trials.
- Increased payments for priority practices, through which USDA can designate up to 10 practices in each state to receive higher rates.
- Revised its purpose statement to expressly include addressing resource concerns for organic producers, avoiding the need for more regulatory programs and helping producers transition from the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).
- Revised ranking protocols to expressly include CRP contract holders with expiring CRP contracts.
- Adjusted the definition for a “comprehensive nutrient management plan” to ensure only applicable natural resources need to be considered.
- Modified the requirements for an EQIP plan of operations that includes the progressive implementation of a comprehensive nutrient management plan.
- Modified language in the EQIP national priorities to specifically include soil health and weather and drought resilience in the national priorities.
- Modified the purpose and scope of Conservation Innovation Grants to expressly include field research.
- Authorized reduced matching requirements for Conservation Innovation Grant projects aimed at helping historically underserved producers.
USDA directs producers interested in participating in EQIP to visit their local Natural Resources Conservation Service office.