The Department of Agriculture has finalized a rule making soil health, comprehensive nutrient management plan, and advanced payment changes to the Environmental Quality Incentives Program.

The rule updates the Natural Resources Conservation Service program, which provides financial and technical help to producers who implement conservation practices that address issues like soil erosion, water quality, and wildlife habitat, according to USDA.

NRCS Acting Chief Kevin Norton told Agri-Pulse updates include changing the definition for a Comprehensive Nutrient Management Plan (CNMP) by making sure only applicable natural resources are considered.

“If you are implementing practices that are included in the Comprehensive Nutrient Management Plan, then we make that connection but we are also clear, as the statute instructed us, that we can do incremental implementation and do not have to have full implementation,” he said.

Prior to the 2018 farm bill, Norton said to implement animal waste management and handling practices, producers had to have a CNMP and by the end of the contract period all of the components of that plan had to be in place.

Modifications to EQIP also include providing the ability for organic producers to transition ground from the Conservation Reserve Program, and updates national priorities to specifically include soil health, weather, and drought resilience.

The agency received nearly 600 comments in response to an interim rule published Dec. 17, 2019.

“EQIP is the workhorse of the farm bill conservation programs and the foundation of voluntary, incentive-based conservation for agriculture and forest producers,” National Association of Conservation Districts (NACD) CEO Jeremy Peters said in an email to Agri-Pulse.

Peters said NACD commends NRCS for continuing to get conservation program rules finalized, saying those programs enable conservation districts to “efficiently and effectively enroll cooperators and implement conservation practices on the landscape.”

While there are improvements to EQIP, Eric Deeble, policy director at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), said the updated rule missed an opportunity to help small to midsize farmers and ranchers maximize their conservation benefit for generations to come.

“We appreciate that NRCS seized some of these opportunities, but we are disappointed that they passed on others, leaving us with a program that does less for our farmers and ranchers than it could,” Deeble said in a statement.

NSAC argued the rule illegally doubles the payment rate for EQIP contracts from $450,000 to $900,000 for large farms owned by general partnerships. The group also noted it lets Confined Animal Feeding Operations "off the hook"  when it comes to achieving good nutrient management by asking producers, as a requirement for receiving EQIP funding, to develop a nutrient management plan but doesn't require them to achieve it. NSAC also stated it refuses to specifically help EQIP producers address resource concerns in a way to help them graduate into the Conservation Stewardship Program.

Updates to the EQIP also require NRCS to offer an advance payment option for historically underserved producers.

“If you’re an underserved socially disadvantaged farmer ... you automatically get an advance payment,” Norton said. Advanced payment options were offered before, but as an opt-in; the update requires an opt out.

The rule also increases the payment cap for producers participating in the Organic Initiative to $140,000 for contracts entered for fiscal years 2019 through 2023. Before, it was $20,000 per year and $80,000 for any six-year period.

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It also changes incentive contracts, which focus on up to three priority resource concerns within targeted watersheds and other high priority landscapes. Typically, EQIP contracts run for five years, but these contracts span anywhere from 5 to 10 years.

NRCS may also designate up to 10 conservation practices in each state for specific resource issues relative to water, soil health, and habitat to receive higher rates for certain practices.

“It’s a method of stimulating and accelerating an adoption of a practice that would normally not be picked up and used by a producer but has high conservation value with it,” Norton noted.

The final rule is scheduled be published in the Federal Register on Monday, Oct, 26.

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