May 12, 2016
Farmers and ranchers are important stewards of our natural resources. Through national initiatives like the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is able to support farmers and ranchers in their efforts to introduce conservation efforts on their lands and more sustainably manage their operations.
EQIP, managed by USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), is a voluntary conservation program that provides farmers and ranchers with financial cost-share assistance to implement conservation practices on their agricultural lands. Using support from EQIP, participants can install or implement structural practices (ex., terraces or fencing), vegetative practices (ex., grass waterways and riparian buffers), and management practices (ex., nutrient management and cover cropping). In return for implementing these conservation practices, participants have a portion of their costs paid for through the program. EQIP funds are available through a general pool, as well as through special initiatives that highlight specific practices or natural resource concerns, such as the Organic Initiative, Seasonal High Tunnel Initiative, and On-Farm Energy Initiative.
On May 12, 2016, USDA published the final rule for EQIP, making changes required by the 2014 Farm Bill. The final rule follows the publication of the Interim Final Rule (IFR), which was released in December 2014. Although the EQIP IFR became effective immediately upon release, it was subject to a public comment period during which 65 respondents submit more than 330 comments for USDA to consider before publishing the final rule.
While the 2014 Farm Bill made relatively few changes to EQIP, USDA made a number of administrative changes to the program through the IFR. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), along with several of our member organizations, submitted comments after the publication of the IFR making specific recommendations about manure management and concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), irrigation history requirements, support and opportunities for historically underserved producers, benefits for wildlife, and the EQIP’s climate change mitigation potential.
We are very disappointed that our major recommendations on the IFR, outlined below, were not reflected in the final EQIP rule. NSAC is committed to securing administrative and legislative fixes to address these issues when the new Administration and Congress begin next year.
CAFOs Continue to Benefit from EQIP Funding
NSAC opposes the use of limited EQIP dollars to support infrastructure development for confined animal agriculture production through CAFO expansion. EQIP support for CAFOs is contradictory to the very nature and core purpose of the program. At a minimum, we have repeatedly requested that NRCS stop providing EQIP assistance to new and expanding CAFOs in areas with impaired waters, on floodplains, and in excess nutrient regions. The continued use of public dollars to expand CAFOs in these areas is counterproductive to natural resource conservation and sound environmental management.
Animal waste storage and treatment facilities are the second largest single users of EQIP funds (behind only irrigation equipment). In fiscal year (FY) 2015 alone, NRCS provided more than $100 million in EQIP funding for CAFO-related practices, including: waste storage facility ($48.7 million), waste facility cover ($24 million), animal mortality facility ($8.1 million), and manure transfer ($7.9 million). The siphoning of these funds by CAFOs dramatically reduces dollars that could otherwise be available for sustainable management practice – presently, three quarters of eligible applicants to this program are being turned away because it is vastly oversubscribed.
NSAC has also opposed a change in the IFR that eliminated a requirement for Regional Conservationists to review and approve applications of $150,000 or greater; much of the larger project funding in EQIP goes to support CAFOs.
NSAC has voiced strong opposition to the ongoing NRCS practice of setting aside substantial funding for CAFO-only ranking pools in key livestock states. This practice puts all other EQIP applicants at a major competitive disadvantage and diminishes the environmental outcomes of the program, reducing its overall cost-effectiveness. We continue to urge NRCS to prioritize sustainable livestock management, including rotational grazing, forage management, and infrastructure (such as fencing or watering facilities) to prevent streams and lakes from negative livestock impacts.
We also urged NRCS to require that producers have a comprehensive nutrient management plan (CNMP) in place before receiving EQIP funds for any CAFO-related practices; currently these are only required by the end of the contract.
Finally, NSAC has urged NRCS to conduct a full environmental review of the impact of what is now 13 years worth of CAFO and CAFO-expansion funding. A review of these practices and their environmental impacts has not been assessed by the agency to date.
We are disappointed that the final rule fails to address any of these key concerns regarding EQIP’s ongoing support for CAFOs and the incentivizing of confinement production across the country.
The 2014 Farm Bill consolidated the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP) into EQIP and set a requirement that at least five percent of program funds go toward practices for wildlife habitat conservation. Based on historical expenditures of wildlife-related practices in both WHIP and EQIP, NRCS assumed that the actual funding would be greater than the five percent minimum. NSAC agreed with that assessment, and therefore urged the agency to establish a goal that no less than 10 percent of funds go toward wildlife habitat creation and improvement to help ensure there would be no backsliding from historical commitments.
We recommended that NRCS include this goal in the EQIP final rule and create a process for reassessing and revising the goal each year based on prior years’ spending and habitat concerns. NRCS did not expand this goal in the final rule, but instead referred back to the preamble of the IFR, in which the agency described tracking of the wildlife-identified EQIP practices. We will continue to urge NRCS to go further in setting goals that exceed the statutory five percent set-aside for wildlife.
EQIP’s Role in Supporting Climate Benefits
NSAC recommended that NRCS clearly and realistically assess EQIP’s climate benefits, and that they create a new initiative that would direct each state office to develop priorities to advance the adoption of conservation activities that reduce GHG emissions, sequester carbon, and improve resiliency. Unfortunately, the final rule mentions neither climate mitigation nor adaptation.
We are pleased, however, at USDA’s announcement today that the agency will set aside $72.3 million of EQIP funds this year for climate beneficial farm conservation practices. See our post from earlier today for more information on the targeted allocation of these funds and USDA’s promotion of climate-beneficial conservation practices through their “Climate Month” communications initiative.
Support for Historically Underserved Producers
The 2014 Farm Bill maintained a set-aside within EQIP of five percent of funds to support socially disadvantaged farmers (groups that have been subject to racial or ethnic prejudice), and another five percent for beginning farmers. Veteran farmers also receive preferences within these set-asides. The final rule also includes an increase in the advance payment (from 30 to 50 percent of funds) for producers in these groups, as authorized by the 2014 Farm Bill.
NSAC applauds NRCS for their commitment to implementing these farm bill provisions that aim to make EQIP funds accessible to beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers. We thank NRCS for their continued outreach efforts to historically underserved producers and we encourages the continued expansion of this critical resource.
Irrigation History Requirements and Waivers
An additional provision within the IFR relevant to historically underserved producers is the irrigation history requirement waiver for previously irrigated land. We have serious concerns about the significant amounts of EQIP funding that go to support the installation of irrigation equipment like pipelines and pivots (nearly 20 percent of all EQIP dollars in FY 2015), particularly when these practices are used to expand irrigated crop production.
As a result, NSAC strongly supported a robust irrigation history requirement, which would ensure that producers who receive cost share assistance for irrigation practices are not expanding irrigated crop production. However, recognizing the particular challenges that tribal communities may have in demonstrating that land was previously irrigated, and to help rectify past discrimination, NSAC supported a full waiver from the irrigation history requirement for previously irrigated land.
The final rule notes that in order to implement the waiver provision, NRCS has developed and issued program policy in the EQIP manual that includes all proposed pieces of the history requirement waiver (as described in the IFR) – except for an acreage limitation that would have prevented the waiver from being applied to all tribal land. We applaud NRCS for working to ensure that EQIP funds remain available for tribal lands.