USDA is releasing the first $850 million in conservation program funding from the $18 billion provided by the Inflation Reduction Act to ramp up the adoption of climate-smart farming practices. 

The new funding will be available through Environmental Quality Incentives Program, Conservation Stewardship Program, Agricultural Conservation Easement Program and Regional Conservation Partnership Program. USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service took comment late last year on how it should direct the IRA funding.

Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack said Monday this year’s allocation sets the table for even larger increases to come.

“We are getting all of you — and all of us at NRCS — prepared for a remarkable increase next year,” Vilsack told members of the National Association of Conservation Districts in New Orleans. Vilsack said as much as $1.7 billion would be available next year.   

EQIP, CSP and RCPP will each receive about $250 million for fiscal 2023, with the remaining $100 million earmarked for ACEP.

Speaking to Agri-Pulse following his speech, Vilsack said the FY 2023 funding will expand EQIP by 12%, ACEP by 22%, CSP by 25% and RCPP by 83%.

For FY24, EQIP funding is expected to increase 85%, while ACEP funding will grow by 44%, CSP by 50%, and RCPP by 266%, Vilsack said.

Provisions in the IRA require the new funding to be targeted toward practices that can build soil carbon and otherwise reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

Vilsack told Agri-Pulse the spending means USDA and private entities that provide conservation technical assistance for producers will need to be ready for additional demand.

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“I think there's an excitement out there, I think there's a genuine interest in and desire to actually engage more in conservation as witnessed by the fact that we have the waiting list,” he said. “Now for the first time, we have pretty significant resources available and we've had an increase in staffing which — combined with the simplification of the process — creates, I think, a good dynamic for reducing the backlog.”

Asked about his assessment of current NRCS staffing, Vilsack said the department is “making progress” and is “really focused on” hiring staffers “getting the work done on the ground.”

USDA plans to announce a new RCPP funding availability this spring that will include the new IRA funding; applications for the initial funding round of the ACEP Agricultural Land Easements and Wetland Reserve Easements programs are due by March 17.

As for EQIP and CSP, applications are accepted on a rolling basis, but NRCS encourages producers to check their state’s ranking dates to determine their timeline to be considered in the current funding round. A USDA release notes the funding will “include an opportunity to address the unmet demand from producers who have previously sought funding for climate-smart conservation activities.”

Separately, USDA on Monday also announced a new Western Water and Working Lands Framework for Conservation Action, which a release noted “includes guidelines for identifying vulnerable agricultural landscapes and 13 strategies to help NRCS state leaders, water resource managers, and producers respond to priority challenges.”

Some $25 million in NRCS WaterSMART Initiative funding will be provided for three new priority areas in California, Hawaii and Washington and 37 existing areas across the West and Plains states.   

The WaterSMART program is operated in collaboration with the Bureau of Reclamation to increase water conservation and improve drought resilience. 

The Bureau of Reclamation announced separately that will provide $125 million to relaunch the System Conservation Pilot Program in the Upper Colorado River Basin. The program will support water management in the region.

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