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Conservation Agriculture in the Delaware River Basin: Opportunities and Challenges

October 12, 2018


The Environment America Research and Policy Center, with the support of the William Penn Foundation, has created an interactive map of the Delaware River Watershed and the threats to water quality, including Urban and Agricultural Runoff. Pictured is a map of the basin and in red the impaired waters of the watershed.

The Environment America Research and Policy Center, with the support of the William Penn Foundation, created an interactive map of the Delaware River Watershed and the threats to water quality in the basin. Pictured is a map of the basin, with the red highlighting impaired waters. For access to the map tool, click here.

With the 2014 Farm Bill officially expired without a new bill in place, the fate of key federal conservation programs is now in limbo. Although much of the Farm Bill Conference Committee’s work is being done behind closed doors, farmers and farm advocates still have time to weigh in. Additionally, it is critical that family farmers and rural communities understand the importance of the farm bill’s conservation programs, and how can benefit from and access key programs.

While on-farm conservation programs have helped protect natural resources, major challenges to accessing and understanding conservation assistance remain, particularly in areas like the Delaware River Watershed (DRW). According to a 2014 report by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), roughly 434,000 acres (51% of the cropped acres) in the Watershed have a high level of need for additional conservation treatment. The percentage of cropland requiring high or moderate treatment in the Watershed (73 percent) is also high relative to the 11 other Watersheds analyzed as part of the NRCS study. Despite the clear need for remediation, counties in the DRW have not always taken full advantage of key farm bill conservation programs like the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), for example.

In order to better understand how producers in the DRW are utilizing federal conservation programs and might be affected by the outcome of the next farm bill, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) partnered with the William Penn Foundation (WPF) to produce a new report: “Assessing Farm Bill Conservation Programs at the County-Level in the States of the Delaware River Watershed”.

In this featured publication, NSAC analyzes fiscal year (FY) 2017 conservation program data (the most recent available data) to better understand the adoption and utilization of farm bill conservation programs within the DRW. We hope that this information and analysis can then be used to help stakeholders in the region increase awareness and utilization of these vital programs.

Key Farm Bill Conservation Programs

The 1985 Farm Bill was the first to add a Conservation Title, and the first time conservation programs received direct farm bill funding. Conservation agriculture programs enjoyed broad support for decades – until the 2014 Farm Bill, which marked the first time that the Conservation Title was cut since its creation over three decades ago. Since passage of the 2014 Farm Bill, those cuts, totaling roughly $6 billion when automatic sequestration cuts are factored in, have severely hindered farmers’ ability to access conservation support. The Conservation Title includes a wide range of critical programs, all of which offer vital support to help farmers achieve both their conservation and their financial goals at the same time.

In this report, NSAC analyzes the most recent conservation program data (FY 2017) available to assess program utilization and opportunities in DRW counties (if county data was unavailable, state-level data was used). With FY 2018 being the final year that conservation programs were authorized under the recently expired 2014 Farm Bill, however, additional analysis is recommended in order to better understand the impact of the $6 billion funding cut on farm bill conservation programs (both within the DRW and nationwide).

The following farm bill conservation programs were analyzed in this report; impacts are assessed in dollars or by acres affected, depending on how the program is structured:

Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) – CSP provides financial and technical assistance to help participants comprehensively enhance natural resources across their entire operation. CSP offers farmers the opportunity to earn payments for actively managing, maintaining, and expanding conservation activities like cover crops, rotational grazing, buffer strips, and more.

  • Total DRW impact: $1,539,882 in FY 2017 / $7,699,410 over life of 5-year contracts signed in FY17

Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) – EQIP provides cost share assistance for farmers and ranchers to help them implement management, vegetative, and structural conservation practices on their working agricultural lands. EQIP reimburses participants for a percentage of the costs of installing conservation practices.

  • Total DRW impact: $11,415,910 in FY 2017

Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) – ACEP includes a Wetland Reserve Easement (WRE) component and Agricultural Land Easement (ALE) component. WRE’s purpose is to restore, protect, and enhance wetland values and functions on wetlands that have been in production, and ALE protects farms from development in order to ensure farm viability for future generations, as well as conserve critical grazing lands.

  • Total DRW impact: 1,936.8 ALE acres, 43.6 WRE acres

Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) – The primary purpose of CRP is to preserve and improve the quality of soil, water, and wildlife habitat by establishing long-term cover on highly erodible land or land in need of conservation buffers that has previously been in row crop production. Within CRP, Continuous CRP (CCRP) supports partial field enrollments for conservation buffers or wildlife habitat.

Total DRW impact: $1,932,703

Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) – Through RCPP, NRCS and its partners help producers install and maintain conservation activities that tackle priority natural resource concerns in a state or region. Partner entities (e.g., non-profit groups, conservation districts, farmer cooperatives, or other state or local agencies) submit proposals, and once NRCS selects proposals from the applicants, farmers and ranchers apply through NRCS to participate in an RCPP project.

  • Total DRW impact: $3,200,000 distributed amongst DRW states

Together, these programs contributed $18,088,495 in programmatic funds in FY 2017 and served upwards of 1,980.4 acres in the DRW.

Decoding the Data

On first glance, the data on DRW counties’ utilization of conservation programs can be somewhat misleading. For example, while counties in the DRW leveraged large amounts of EQIP funding in FY 2017, it is important to acknowledge that not all EQIP practices provide the same level of conservation benefits. In addition to water quality and management activities like cover crops, conservation tillage, and filter strips, and conservation buffers, EQIP also funds structural activities including waste storage facilities for concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and large-scale irrigation equipment.

Additional analysis to specifically examine funding for CAFO related activities versus management activities is still needed in order to better understand how much funding is truly benefiting the Watershed through conservation management activities. For example, across all counties in the basin, more than $730,000 in EQIP funding went to waste storage facilities in FY 2017, thus providing funding to support CAFO infrastructure. An additional $1,150,000 in EQIP funding went to support irrigation infrastructure. EQIP funding in the Watershed, therefore, is reflective of national trends in that a significant portion of total EQIP funding goes to support infrastructure development for irrigation and CAFOs.

Looking at the data from both CSP and CCRP, we can see that DRW counties fail to truly capitalize on comprehensive conservation strategies (those that include the adoption of multiple, complementary activities). CSP and CCRP can be incredibly useful in the Watershed’s water quality mitigation and long-term sustainability efforts by providing comprehensive conservation through whole farm contracts (CSP) and a wide range of beneficial water quality practices that are currently underutilized (CCRP). Regarding ACEP and RCPP, stakeholder-level outreach is recommended to understand more fully the benefits these programs are currently delivering to the Watershed, and how – if at all – they could be better leveraged.

ACEP participation overall is quite low in the Watershed counties with the exception of Kent County, which also received one-third of the total EQIP funding in the Watershed. Since Kent is not entirely located within the Watershed, it would be of interest to understand where in the county ACEP contracts are being utilized, and if they are being targeted toward Watershed remediation efforts. Finally, RCPP is shown to serve as an important conservation tool to the region. The program models valuable opportunities for the Watershed to continue to leverage the underlying farm bill funding, as it pulls a percentage of total funding from the underlying programs (EQIP, CSP, and ACEP) for farmers to use directly. The partnership model demonstrates the importance of bringing a wide range of stakeholders to the table.

Recommendations

In the compiling of this report, an overall lack of available and/or uniform data was an ongoing challenge. In order for stakeholders in the DRW to fully understand the utilization and impact of federal conservation programs in their region, NSAC offers the following recommendations:

  1. Stakeholders in the Basin should work with NRCS to improve basin-scale data availability. By more aggressively working with NRCS at both the local and national level, stakeholders can raise awareness regarding the need to address the lack of county-level public data for some conservation programs.
  2. Improve availability of conservation outcomes data through administrative and/or legislative reforms. The conservation program data currently available (without a FOIA request) from NRCS can tell us about the number of contracts signed, dollars obligated, and acres enrolled within the region. NRCS can also detail specific conservation activities adopted within the region, however, they are not able to measure, evaluate, or report on specific conservation outcomes (e.g., improved water quality, reduced erosion). Although we can derive a basic level of understanding about the impacts of the programs and practices, it is critical that USDA be able to concretely measure program impact.  The 2018 Farm Bill represents an important opportunity for Congress to mandate that this information be collected in order to increase program efficiency, efficacy, and transparency. Following the farm bill’s reauthorization, there are also ongoing opportunities to work with the Administration to advance non-legislative reforms that would make this type of data collection possible.
  3. Consider leveraged funding multi-year enrollment in future analyses. In order to gain an even more comprehensive understanding of impact of these conservation programs in the Delaware River Watershed, future analyses should consider how much additional funding federal programs leveraged.

Conclusions

There are myriad factors that keep conservation programs from reaching their full potential, both at the national level generally and in DRW counties specifically. One universal factor affecting federal program usage is the capacity of NRCS to do outreach at the local level. Proactive outreach from grassroots stakeholders to NRCS, including local producers and agriculture-focused organizations, can help to address inconsistencies in state and local-level outreach.

It is also incumbent upon farm, food, and environmental organizations to amplify the work of NRCS through their own outreach and education efforts. Education and engagement efforts from local and national stakeholder organizations is particularly needed given the current efforts to dismantle popular conservation programs; including, CSP, which the Administration and some in the House have been actively working to eliminate. CSP is currently underutilized in the counties of the DRW despite the environmental need for comprehensive remediation. Concerted outreach from conservation experts to local producers could not only help to increase Watershed-wide enrollment in comprehensive conservation activities, it would also help build support for the program as farm bill negations continue.

The decisions made as part of our next farm bill will fundamentally affect the programs and practices available for producers looking to improve their soil health, maintain or restore their waterways, and increase environmental sustainability on their working lands. Those interested in engaging more deeply in the 2018 Farm Bill and in federal agricultural policy in general may be interested in engaging more directly with NSAC, a 30-year old coalition with over 120 members nationwide that leverages skilled policy analysis and robust grassroots engagement in order to advance federal policies that support sustainable agricultural systems. To learn more about NSAC membership, click here. You can also sign up for our Weekly Roundup e-newsletter and and stay tuned to our Take Action! page for grassroots advocacy opportunities.


Categories: Conservation, Energy & Environment


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