Center offers recommendations to further improve Environmental Quality Incentives Program

In December 2019, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) released a new rule for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). This rule acts as the blueprint for how the program will operate. The Center for Rural Affairs encouraged farmers and ranchers who have used EQIP to comment on the rule. We also took the opportunity to comment. The comment period has closed, as of Feb. 18, 2020.

 

February 17, 2020

Matt Lohr​
Chief, Natural Resources Conservation Service
U.S. Department of Agriculture
Washington, DC 20250

Re: Environmental Quality Incentives Program Interim Final Rule, NRCS-2019-0009 (Fed. Reg. Vol. 84, No. 242, Dec. 17, 2019, page 69272ff.)

Dear Chief Lohr:

The Center for Rural Affairs advocates for strong rural communities. Healthy farms and ranches play an essential role in rural communities, both in the economic activity they generate and in their stewardship of natural resources. 

The Center has seen the valuable impact that strong working lands conservation programs can have for farmers and ranchers, and appreciates this opportunity to comment on the Interim Final Rule for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. We ask NRCS to make the following changes to EQIP: 

  1. Prioritize soil health 
  2. Do not double the EQIP payment limit to $900,000 for certain operations and thereby reduce resources available to small and mid-size farmers and ranchers
  3. Ensure advance payments are available and work as intended
  4. Ensure EQIP contracts with irrigation districts do not push farmers and ranchers out of the program
  5. Use EQIP incentive contracts to allow farmers and ranchers to graduate into CSP
  6. Allow EQIP fencing practice to be used for grazing cover crops nationwide
  7. Require progressive implementation of nutrient management plans for CAFOs
  8. Make offerings for organic producers and conventional producers equitable
  9. Support increased participation by historically underserved organizations in Conservation Innovation Grants
  10. Accept comments via mail

1. Prioritize soil health

Every one of our farmer and rancher supporters who has implemented soil building practices on their operations has shared the benefits that they see from improved soil health. We have heard farmers share how the increased organic matter in their soil has decreased nitrates in their water, reduced erosion from wind and rain, improved crop yields during dry years, and improved crop yields during wet years. Soil health is the foundation for long-term crop and pasture health. Crucially, the farmers we work with have also seen that improving soil health can also reduce their input costs. As such, preserving the precious resources of the soil is a key piece of both the long-term stewardship and economic viability of farms and ranches. 

We urge NRCS to dramatically increase EQIP’s emphasis on soil health. We offer three potential actions for NRCS to take. First, we ask NRCS to add to the list of national priorities in section 1466.4 the protection and enhancement of soil health and soil organic matter. We believe that this will complement the sixth listed priority, “reduction in soil erosion and sedimentation from unacceptable levels on eligible land,” which addresses preventing soil degradation rather than actively building soil health. 

We also ask NRCS to train staff at all levels on the importance of soil health and on the conservation practices - particularly ongoing management practices - which build soil health. 

Finally, we ask NRCS to maintain a robust set of soil health practice options for farmers and ranchers applying for EQIP and any other conservation program.

2. Do not double the EQIP payment limit to $900,000 for certain operations and thereby reduce resources available to small and mid-size farmers and ranchers

The 2018 farm bill caps EQIP contracts at a maximum of $450,000 for anyone applying. However, the interim final rule states that under EQIP, NRCS will allow both very large farms and water management entities to apply for contracts as large as $900,000. This is outside the statutory limitation. We are concerned that allowing this higher payment limit will shrink available funding for small and mid-size farmers applying for EQIP. 

We ask NRCS to change this provision and instead offer a maximum payment of $450,000 for all EQIP contracts, consistent with statutory requirements. 

3. Ensure advance payments are available and work as intended

The farmers and ranchers we work with who qualify as beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers under EQIP often face cash flow barriers that prevent them from paying for conservation practice installments up front, as is usually required for EQIP contracts. We are glad that the advance payment option under EQIP exists to address this barrier, that the 2018 farm bill strengthened the advance payment option for these groups and that the interim final rule states that NRCS will inform these farmers and ranchers of the advance payment option. 

We ask you to further strengthen this offering to underserved producers and re-word Section 1466.24(d)(1) to read as follows:

Notwithstanding paragraph (c) of this section, with respect to participants who are historically underserved producers, NRCS will issue advance payments of at least 50 percent and not to exceed 100 percent of the anticipated amount of the costs incurred for the purpose of purchasing materials or services to implement a conservation practice, unless this option is waived by the producer

We also ask you to ensure that the intent of supporting underserved producers is carried out. The Statement of the Managers in the Conference Report states: “Advance payments should be timed so that the 90 day period to expend all funds commences at the time practice installation begins.”  

When underserved producers receive this advance payment without sufficient time to prepare for implementing the EQIP practices in the required 90 day window, and are then forced to return the payment, it undercuts the intent of the provision. We strongly urge you to work with producers to ensure that this provision works for them, and they receive these advance payments at a time that is reasonable for them to install the practices within the 90 day window. 

4. Ensure EQIP contracts with irrigation districts do not push farmers and ranchers out of the program

We are concerned that the new eligibility of irrigation districts for EQIP funding will reduce funding available for farmers and ranchers to enact needed conservation on their lands. The Managers Report for the 2018 farm bill states:

“In order to ensure that EQIP cost-share assistance made available under this provision does not disadvantage other regions and conservation concerns, the Managers specifically state that 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 State Technical Committees.”

We urge you to strictly follow this provision and ensure both that farmers and ranchers continue to be the primary recipients of EQIP funds and that EQIP continues to prioritize soil health, water quality, and biodiversity.

5. Use EQIP incentive contracts to allow farmers and ranchers to graduate into CSP

We see the new incentive contracts option under EQIP as an excellent opportunity for NRCS to sync EQIP with CSP, by creating a pathway for farmers and ranchers to graduate from EQIP to CSP. For example, EQIP incentive contracts require at least one priority resource concern be addressed by the end of the contract, which puts them on the path of eligibility for CSP, which requires producers to have already addressed two priority resource concerns in order to be eligible.

In Subpart D, which outlines the new Incentive Contract authority, we urge NRCS to amend Section 1466.41(a) to read as follows: 

“(a) NRCS will give priority to applications that address eligible resource concerns identified under Section 1466.40 and that are aimed at making the participant eligible for the Conservation Stewardship Program at the end of the contract period.” 

We ask you to take every effort to make this pathway from EQIP Incentive Contracts to CSP enrollment seamless. This should include giving priority to Incentive Contract applications that address two priority resource concerns.

6. Allow EQIP grazing practices to be used for grazing cover crops nationwide

Cover crops are an invaluable tool for farmers and ranchers to protect and build soil health and enhance water quality. However, they require an investment of time and money to both plant and terminate. EQIP offers an extremely valuable pathway to provide that financial assistance to farmers in planting more cover crops on their land. 

Many farmers find that allowing livestock to graze their cover crops is a useful way to capitalize on the expense of cover crop planting and management. Grazing cover crops therefore can have the added benefit of increasing farmers’ resiliency by allowing them to develop an additional income stream from livestock. 

However, many farmers and ranchers are not taking steps to plant more cover crops and then graze them because of the expense of installing fence and water on their cropland. While EQIP offers support for planting cover crops, currently EQIP does not uniformly allow farmers nationwide to use EQIP funds to install fence on cropland for the purposes of annually grazing cover crops. 

We ask NRCS to provide uniform allowance nationwide for installing fence and water on cropland using EQIP funds in order to support increased annual grazing of cover crops or forages. This action would also support the fifth of NRCS’ principles of soil health: livestock integration. 

7. Require progressive implementation of nutrient management plans for CAFOs 

We note that the 2018 farm bill changed the requirements for Confined Animal Feeding Operations from developing and implementing a comprehensive nutrient management plan to now showing progress towards implementing a comprehensive nutrient management plan. We urge NRCS to make this requirement for implementing a comprehensive nutrient management plan clear in the interim final rule for EQIP. Specifically, we ask that Section 1466.7, subsection (d) be rewritten as follows:

“(d) If an EQIP plan of operations includes an animal waste storage or treatment facility or associated waste transport or transfer device, to manage manure, process wastewater, or other animal waste generated by an AFO, the participant must agree to develop a CNMP and demonstrate progressive improvement by the end of the contract period, and any conservation practices in the EQIP plan of operations must be implemented consistent with a CNMP.”

8. Make offerings for organic producers and conventional producers equitable

The organic farmers we work with pursue organic certification both for the environmental impact of the agricultural practices and for the price premium that certified organic products command. We have seen time and again that organic certification is a valuable rural economic development strategy.

Despite this, many farm programs were not designed with organic operations in mind. Organic producers deserve equitable access to all agricultural programs, and conservation programs are no exception. The 2018 farm bill states that one of the purposes of EQIP is to address identified, new, or expected resource concerns related to organic production. However, section 1466.1(2) of the EQIP rule does not include organic production in the list of purposes of the program. 

We urge NRCS to add the concerns of organic producers to section 1466.1(2), and to offer equitable program access and practice options to all producers, including those certified organic and transitioning to organic.

9. Support increased participation by historically underserved organizations in Conservation Innovation Grants

We are glad that NRCS sets aside 10 percent of Conservation Innovation Grant (CIG) funds for historically underserved populations, and encourage NRCS to further increase their access to the program and decrease the match requirements for these organizations. Historically underserved organizations are much less likely to have access to large levels of private foundation funds to draw upon for match when applying with CIG, and a requirement for a one-to-one match creates a significant barrier for these organizations. We urge you to lower the CIG match requirements for historically underserved organizations. 

10. Restore option to submit comments via mail

Many farmers and ranchers live in rural areas where easy access to the internet is not available. Many of the farmers and ranchers we work with at the Center for Rural Affairs care about conservation and EQIP but do not have easy access to the internet. Submitting comments on this rule is difficult for many of these farmers and ranchers.

Under future rule-makings, NRCS should restore the option to submit comments via mail. 

Thank you for your consideration.

Anna Johnson
Policy Manager, Center for Rural Affairs