There are government programs that provide financial incentives to install conservation practices on agricultural land. The programs are authorized through the conservation title in the Agricultural Act of 2014, also known as the 2014 U.S. Farm Bill. To become familiar with the opportunities to participate in federal government programs, review this section and visit the website mentioned in it. State agencies also have programs available for producers. Since they vary by state, only federal programs will be covered in this section. Your local Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) representative can direct you to the appropriate state agency for more information.
Administration and General Eligibility
The majority of federal conservation programs are administered through NRCS. NRCS has service centers located in almost every county in the country. Visit https://offices.sc.egov.usda.gov/locator/app to find your local NRCS office. The NRCS representative can describe conservation program availability and timeframes, and can make recommendations that are compatible with your conservation goals and agricultural operation. So, a good relationship with your NRCS representative is helpful.
Qualifications are different for different federal conservation programs. For example, to be eligible to receive payments through EQIP, you must:
- be an agricultural producer
- have an average adjusted gross income (AGI) not more than $900,000
- control or own eligible land
- be in compliance with highly erodible land and wetland conservation requirements
- develop needed conservation plans for the program of interest
For the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), qualifications vary by state.
Types of Programs
Conservation programs within the Farm Bill can be classified into three categories: land-retirement programs, land-preservation programs and working-lands programs. Land-retirement programs, such as the Conservation Reserve Program, provide incentive payments to producers for taking land out of agricultural production and planting it back to native plant or tree species. Land-preservation programs enable the placement of easements on land for conservation purposes or for maintaining agricultural practices. An example of a land-preservation program is the Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program that allows a producer to place an easement on agricultural land to keep it in agricultural production for perpetuity, usually 30 years. Working-lands programs provide incentive payments including cost-share payments to encourage the maintenance and adoption of conservation practices on land that is under agricultural production. Because working-lands programs have more impact on producers engaged in agricultural production and conservation, the following sections will describe two working-lands programs administered through NRCS, EQIP and CSP.
Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP)
EQIP allows a producer to enter into a one- to multiple-year contract to receive technical and financial assistance to install and maintain conservation practices. The 2018 farm bill introduced five- and 10-year contracts. Eligible practices are those that sustain agricultural production; enhance air, soil and water quality; or conserve energy. Eligible agricultural land includes cropland, pasture, rangeland, and non-industrial, private forest land. Producers engaged in livestock and/or crop production are eligible to participate in EQIP.
In order to receive payments a producer must enter into a contract with NRCS based on a plan to implement and maintain conservation practices on their agricultural land. Once entered into a contract, a producer will receive incentive payments or cost-share funds based upon the conservation practices that will be implemented on the farm. For a producer, total payments from all EQIP contracts between 2014 and 2018 cannot exceed $450,000.
Conservation practices eligible for incentive payments vary depending on the type of operation and the state. Some examples of conservation practices that may be eligible include animal waste management facilities, terraces, filter strips, tree planting, permanent wildlife habitat, residue management, upland wildlife habitat management, grazing land management, no-till farming, strip-till farming, cover crops and cross-fencing pastures to allow for rotational grazing. Producers can receive payments for conservation practices related to organic production and the transition to organic production. More information on EQIP can be found online. Local NRCS representatives have information concerning the conservation practices that are eligible for payments in their designated area.
Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP)
The CSP allows an eligible producer to receive technical and financial assistance to enhance conservation efforts on their farming operation. The program is designed to assist farmers already doing conservation by helping them to enhance their existing conservation efforts and to further address soil, water and other resource concerns. This means undertaking additional conservation activities and improving, maintaining and managing existing conservation activities. For example, a farmer who has already adopted no-till and manages residues on crop fields to reduce soil erosion could apply for the program to assist with adding cover crops to provide further protection for the soil. The producer enters into a five-year contract and has the option to renew the contract for one additional five-year period. More information about CSP can be found online.
Eligible land includes cropland, pastureland, rangeland, grassland, prairie land, and non-industrial, private forest land. To be eligible, a landowner or producer must meet the stewardship threshold for at least two resource concerns and must meet or exceed the stewardship threshold for at least one additional priority resource concern by the end of the contract. The stewardship thresholds for priority resource concerns are determined for each state or for particular geographic areas within a state. Some examples of priority resource concerns include air quality, soil erosion, soil quality, water quantity, water quality, energy, plant life and animal life.
In order to receive payments, a producer must apply to enter into a CSP contract with NRCS. The producer must enroll all agricultural land in their operation under the contract. The approved contract enables the producer to receive existing activity payments to maintain current conservation efforts that address identified resource concerns at $350 per resource concern addressed per year plus a per-acre payment that varies by land use. The national payment rate is $7.50 for cropland and the farmstead. Payments are made for maintaining and managing existing conservation activities already in place on the land. Additional activity payments are earned for addressing or exceeding one additional resource concern on the operation. These payments will vary by practice and state. There is also a supplemental payment for implementing a resource-conserving crop rotation. A resource-conserving crop rotation is defined as a rotation that provides natural resource conservation benefits and production benefits. Additional CSP payment information can be found online.
There are numerous conservation activities that are eligible under CSP. Some examples include extension of riparian forest buffers or filter strips; grazing management to improve wildlife habitat; continuous no-till with high residue; intensive management of rotational grazing; use of cover crop mixes; forest stand improvement; precision application technology; use of non-chemical methods to kill cover crops; irrigation system automation; and seasonal residue management. Producers may initiate organic certification and transition to organic production while participating in a CSP contract. Local NRCS representatives have more information on eligible conservation activities.
Most conservation programs are competitive, and producers must apply to participate. A good working relationship with local NRCS representatives is imperative. This will help the producer be aware of program timelines and requirements. Additionally, the strong working relationship will aid the NRCS representative in understanding the conservation objectives and goals of the producer. Good records of conservation activities and efforts ease the application process and aid in verifying contract compliance.