WASHINGTON, Sept. 8, 2014 – As USDA continues to roll out new Farm Bill programs, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced today that $328 million in conservation funding is being invested to help landowners protect and restore 32,000 acres of prime farmlands, 45,000 acres of grasslands and 52,000 acres of wetlands.

The funding is provided through the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP), which was created in the 2014 Farm Bill to streamline three previous agricultural and wetland easement programs. A summary of ACEP funding provided to each state can be found online.

Drought-stricken California received the largest allocation, $22.3 million, followed by Arkansas with almost $20.1 million for financial and technical assistance.

However, the demand for the new program was much greater than USDA was able to cover with this first round of funding. Landowners submitted 1,455 bids covering 345,000 acres, but USDA accepted only 380 bids covering 129,000 acres.

 “It’s really designed to give options to folks to be able to take a look at what works best,” Vilsack said. “In the past we’ve been pretty prescriptive with these programs in terms of allocating the resources and basically forcing people into one program or another. This basically creates the kind of flexibility that allows folks to put their own ideas together, then seek assistance and funding under this consolidated program. 

“It speaks highly to the wisdom of Congress in terms of passing a Farm Bill and getting this program set up,” he added. For example, this year's projects will:

  • Improve water quality and wetland storage capacity in the California Bay-Delta region;
  • Reduce flooding along the Mississippi and Red rivers;
  • Provide and protect habitat for threatened, endangered and at-risk species including sage grouse, bog turtles, Florida panthers, Louisiana black bear, and whooping cranes to recover populations and reduce regulatory burdens; and
  • Protect prime agricultural land under high risk of development in urban areas to help secure the nation's food supply and jobs in the agricultural sector.

During a press call with reporters, Vilsack also answered questions about his meeting with President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden at the White House earlier in the day.

“The president and vice president are very interested in making sure that those who are in charge of departments are keeping an eye on all activities of the department and this was an opportunity for us to give the president and vice president a briefing on what we are doing in terms of our technology efforts for our Farm Service Agency offices as we modernize those offices,” Vilsack said. He also provided updates on “what we are doing to assist rural schools who are challenged by the new nutrition standards….. that there is a way to join the vast majority of schools across the country in embracing the new standards." Other topics included the drought situation, especially in California and the shortage of rail cars to move grain in the upper Midwest.

“So it was an opportunity for us to really showcase the good work that’s being done at USDA in terms of day to day activities and to reassure the president and vice president that we’ve got our eye on the ball,” Vilsack added.

The secretary said he also talked to the president about the MIDAS (Modernize and Innovate the Delivery of Agricultural Systems) projectx, which was initially conceived in 2004 and aims to replace the aging 1980s style computers at the over 2,200 FSA offices and streamline all of the data and software required to administer USDA programs.

“The president was advised that we have developed a system and the foundation for a technology system that brings the FSA (Farm Service Agency) technology into the 21st century. We now have the capacity for a producer to go into a county office, to be able to secure records concerning farming operations in that county and other counties. In the past that producer would have had to go to multiple county offices to secure records county by county, based on the farmland that they owned and operated and farmed depending on the specific county it was in. Now they only have to go to a single county office and be able to access their records from multiple county locations. That’s an important convenience for producers,” Vilsack explained.

Vilsack said that FSA staff were also “putting the finishing touches on additional modernization of the technologies so that we can keep a good eye on the integrity of the payments to make sure that we are recording them and reporting them accurately.”

“I also talked to the president about the need for FSA offices to have a broader portfolio of opportunities to help producers in addition to the important work that’s done in providing disaster assistance and assistance under the programs and farm loans. We would like to see many in the FSA offices be able to provide advice and counsel to producers who are looking for creative ways to use their land and maybe a local and regional food system opportunity, maybe a conservation easement possibility, it may be participating in a new ecosystem market or being part of a coop that puts together a new bio economy opportunity. We want FSA offices to be places where farmers can at least get the first bit of information that allows them to maximize an opportunity.”

Overall, Vilsack said he is “very proud of the team here at USDA in terms of its implementation of the Farm Bill. We have done a lot of work in the first six or seven months since the signing of this Farm Bill. We still have work to do, we are now looking forward to the additional modeling and education information on the safety net programs, Agricultural Risk Coverage (ARC) and Price Loss Coverage (PLC), which we hope will be forthcoming by the end of this month."

You can find more information on ACEP here. To learn about technical and financial assistance available through conservation programs, visit www.nrcs.usda.gov/GetStarted or a local USDA service center.

For more information, visit: www.usda.gov/farmbill.

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