Farmers and western conservation groups called for faster access to funding under the Regional Conservation Partnership Program at a Senate hearing Thursday, saying RCPP is important for farmers in drought-stricken areas.

Sara Porterfield, the western water policy adviser for Trout Unlimited, told the Agriculture Committee's conservation subcommittee that RCPP is typically viewed as “administratively burdensome” and “laden with red tape,” which she said makes it hard for producers to effectively use it. She said it takes two years on average for an RCPP agreement to be fully executed after the award selection is made.

“The next farm bill must reduce RCPP’s administrative burden by modernizing federal contracting authority and streamlining the application, contracting and reporting process,” Porterfield said.

RCPP allows farmers to submit farm conservation project proposals to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which picks among them and allows farmers and ranchers to apply. These projects can be tailored to a specific watershed or certain conservation objectives. 

In addition to the lengthy project process, Porterfield said, the portal used to manage RCPPs is unwieldy and duplicative, contracting and delivery of technical assistance is complex, and the $10 million award ceiling is “too low.”

Porterfield said Trout Unlimited was approved for an RCPP project on the Gunnison River in Western Colorado in 2021, but still has not signed a final contract.

Paul Bruchez, a rancher in Kremmling, Colorado, also called for continued support for RCPP. 

Bruchez has been part of the Colorado River headwaters RCPP project, which he says has been “instrumental” in keeping his operation running during 23 years of drought. Trout Unlimited, in collaboration with state agencies, municipalities and agricultural interests, operates the project, which focuses on irrigation infrastructure and river health.

“The Colorado River headwaters project is a shining example of partnership and adaptation for the state of Colorado,” Bruchez said.

Bruchez also discussed challenges with timely approval and implementation of conservation practices through other programs. He said it can take three years to get a EQIP-RCPP Colorado River water diversion project he has been working on completed due to NRCS capacity struggles delaying the design process. His contract, however, technically expired in 2021 and he said the cost of materials and construction has increased since then. 

EQIP is the Environmental Quality Incentives Program.

In his written testimony, Bruchez suggested NRCS seek outside help.

"Does it make more sense for the NRCS to increase capacity with additional staff or is the NRCS better situated to outsource this design work?" he asked.

Senate Ag Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow said NRCS is “severely” understaffed and she and Ranking Member John Boozman, R-Ark., are looking at technologies and other ways to help the agency meet farmers’ conservation needs.

Ray Flickner, who farms land in four different counties in Kansas, said the Conservation Reserve Program needs to be “refocused” to the most marginal cropland. He suggested that the USDA disincentivize CRP contracts on higher producing farmland and pay more for contracts on more marginal land, something other producers in the Southern Plains and West have also called for.

Joseluis Ortiz y Muniz, a farmer in Northern New Mexico, said NRCS usually prioritizes projects based on acreage, which can make it difficult for small farmers to access these programs. He suggested that Congress create a “small farm version of EQIP,” which he believes would better meet the needs of farmers like himself.

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“By investing in young, small and farmers of color, USDA can make long-term conservation and resilience a reality for the next generation of farmers,” Ortiz y Muniz said.

Trout Unlimited's Porterfield also brought up USDA’s Technical Service Provider Program, which the agency sees as one way to help meet producers' increasing technical assistance needs. 

Porterfield said there is a threshold for what TSPs can charge producers that is under current market rates, which she says discourages them from becoming TSPs. She said this should be changed in the farm bill.

“There isn’t an incentive for individuals, for a private engineering firm to get certified as a TSP, because they can’t charge enough money to make it worthwhile,” she said. “Changing those caps can help other folks add to the capacity of NRCS.”

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