Conservation: Open and Ready for Business

By Bruce Knight

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Rumors flying from D.C. to farmland and back have suggested that amidst the recent fiscal cliff negotiations and the one-year (really nine months) extension of the current farm bill that conservation programs have been closed down.  Not true!

Although there may still be some uncertainty about the specific funding levels for 2013, major agricultural conservation programs are up and running.  Along with many others, I had hoped that conservation programs would be consolidated in a new farm bill.  That hasn't happened yet, but is still likely when the next farm bill passes later this year.

Meanwhile, we know that the deficit problem is real and must be addressed.  That means that tough choices and challenging budget battles lie ahead.  We also know that in recent times the conservation community has taken perhaps more than its fair share of hits when funding crunches have come.  So if the past is prologue, when the knives come out again, there could be less money to fund conservation projects than in the past.  Hence 2013 may be the best time to move forward with a project that's been on your mind and in your farm conservation plan for a while.

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Regardless of when the public announcements come that conservation programs are open or that a certain amount of money has been allocated, it's never too soon to meet with your District Conservationist to fill out an application for a program that you are interested in. So don't hesitate; get in the queue right away.

Let's review where things stand on major agricultural conservation programs.  First, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP).  In the past, nearly $1 billion has been allocated annually for EQIP, and the program will be available again this year.  In fact, in some states, sign-up has already closed, and the Natural Resources Conservation Service is currently evaluating applications and making decisions.  Check with your local office to see if it is still taking applications for EQIP or if you can get in line now for next year.

Both the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) and the Grasslands Reserve Program (GRP) will be operating in 2013, although specific funding has not yet been determined.  The same is true for the Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program (WHIP), which under the next farm bill will likely be incorporated into EQIP, and will probably have a modest amount of money this year.  Each of these programs will be following the same rules as in 2012.

Funding is also available for cutting edge ideas under the Conservation Innovation Grants (CIG) through EQIP.  The grant announcement should go out within the next month, and dozens of grants for up to $1 million will be available.

The Continuing Resolution passed last fall committed to make available funds to fulfill 2013 commitments under contracts for those currently participating in the Conservation Stewardship Program.  CSP now covers 50 million acres and is the largest NRCS conservation program.  Hopefully, funding will be made available to implement the program on an additional one million acres in 2013.  It's worth talking with the NRCS staff about if you are interested. 

As you know, the Farm Service Agency administers the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which lost its authority for continuous enrollments last fall.  However, with the extension of the current farm bill, payments for filter strips, buffer strips and wetlands should be available again.  USDA is likely to offer a general sign-up in the spring or summer. 

One final note, with the extension of the farm bill comes the ongoing responsibility for those who participate in conservation programs or direct payments to protect wetlands and highly erodible land (Swampbuster and Sodbuster).

In light of the budget battles ahead, I would urge you to move forward now with any conservation projects that you've been considering.  Now really is the time to get it done while the conservation programs and USDA staff are available to help you.

About the author: Bruce I. Knight, Principal, Strategic Conservation Solutions, was the Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) from 2006 to 2009. From 2002 to 2006, Knight served as Chief of Natural Resources Conservation Service. The South Dakota native worked on Capitol Hill for Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, Rep. Fred Grandy, Iowa, and Sen. James Abdnor, South Dakota. In addition, Knight served as vice president for public policy for the National Corn Growers Association and also worked for the National Association of Wheat Growers. A third-generation rancher and farmer and lifelong conservationist, Knight operates a diversified grain and cattle operation using no-till and rest rotation grazing systems.

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