January 14, 2015
On Wednesday, January 14, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Tom Vilsack announced awards for the recently created Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) for fiscal years 2014 and 2015. RCPP was created in the 2014 Farm Bill, and is administered by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). RCPP is an outgrowth of very similar programs authorized as part of the 2002 and 2008 Farm Bills.
Unlike many other NRCS programs, farmers and ranchers do not apply directly for funding through RCPP. Instead, partner entities design and submit project proposals. Once NRCS selects proposals from these entities, farmers and ranchers are able to apply through NRCS to participate in an RCPP project. NRCS and the partner groups work together to provide financial and technical assistance to farmers to install conservation activities to tackle priority natural resource concerns in a project area. Some RCPP projects focus on specific resource issues of heightened concern in a given watershed or region, while others focus on a given set or type of farmers within a state or area interested in pursuing innovative conservation objectives.
Due to the timing of the 2014 Farm Bill, NRCS chose to combine two years of funding–FY 2014 and FY 2015–into a single enrollment period.
Conservation Cropping Systems For Improving Soil Health: Soil Health Assessment, Comprehensive Conservation Planning and Implementation on Targeted Farms Throughout Illinois
NSAC member organization, Illinois Stewardship Alliance, in partnership with the Illinois Department of Agriculture received a RCPP award to work with at least 65 farms/farmers distributed across Illinois, creating a network of “Soil Health Model Farms.” Each farmer, farm owner or farm manager will work with a soil health expert to identify a combination of farm specific management practices including cover crops, no-till or conservation tillage, and nutrient management strategies. They will also be connected with appropriate technical service providers, local agriculture product retailers, and University of Illinois Extension specialists convened for this project.
Farmers will be offered a complementary and flexible cost share methodology to address the unique resource needs and soil health goals for the management practices they introduce into their operation. In addition, each farm operation will be offered the opportunity, if they are interested, to work with a financial analyst regarding the costs and benefits of their new practices.
We are thrilled that Illinois Stewardship Alliance will be a partner on this project, and look forward to tracking the project’s progress.
Overview of Projects
In the first year of RCPP, NRCS is providing $373 million for 115 projects in all 50 states. By and large, funded proposals received between 50 percent and 80 percent of their request. Roughly $400 million in non-federal funding will be added to the $373 million, bringing total RCPP funding closer to $800 million in total for FY 2014 and 2015.
USDA selected the 115 projects from a slate of 210 full proposals, an acceptance rate of 55 percent. Relative to the more than 600 pre-proposals that partners submitted, however, the acceptance rate is closer to 19 percent.
According to USDA, “projects range from local efforts to protect important drinking water supplies to regional efforts aimed at preserving and expanding critical salmon habitat. Projects also target solutions to address issues at the national level, such as improving water quality in Lake Champlain and the Chesapeake Bay or increasing water availability in the Colorado River Basin.”
You can download a full list as well as summaries of the funded projects from the NRCS website.
National, State, and Regional Breakdown
The 2014 Farm Bill allocates 35 percent of total RCPP funding for projects in Critical Conservation Areas (CCAs), 40 percent to other national priorities as determined by NRCS, and 25 percent to state NRCS offices for in-state projects. The NRCS state office awards the money allocated to them; and the national office awards the balance.
Of the 115 accepted proposals, the NRCS national office picked 45 and NRCS state offices picked 70. Projects in CCAs received $131 million, while the remainder of projects determined by the national office received $149 million. The 70 state-level projects received $93 million. NRCS has developed a map that shows the geographical distribution of the projects.
Priority Resource Concerns
Roughly 50 percent of the funded projects are primarily focused on water quality concerns, 24 percent on wildlife, 18 percent on water quantity, 3 percent on soil quality, and 5 percent on other concerns, such as energy and air.
In addition to providing assistance directly to producers to implement conservation activities as part of an RCPP project, RCPP funds may be directed to partners for a variety of technical assistance (TA) activities, including resource assessment, conservation practice survey and design, conservation planning, and resource monitoring, among others.
NRCS is not requiring partners to have indicated in their proposal whether or not they are requesting TA funds. Rather, NRCS state offices will be working with partners to determine the level and type of TA that they need to make the project successful. We encourage partners to reach out to their state NRCS office if they are seeking funding for outreach, monitoring, or other TA activities.
NSAC has worked since 2011 to champion the idea that project partners be able to access financial assistance so that they can provide adequate technical assistance to producers. Though we failed to get that included in the 2014 Farm Bill, we recommended it as an implementation step to USDA and we are very pleased it has now been made an option in actual practice.
The 2014 Farm Bill created RCPP by consolidating four previously separate programs: the Cooperative Conservation Partnership Initiative (CCPI), Agricultural Water Enhancement Program (AWEP), Chesapeake Bay Watershed Initiative (CBWI), and Great Lakes Conservation Initiative (GLCI).
Under the 2014 Farm Bill, RCPP retains $100 million per year in existing funding from AWEP and CBWI. In addition, RCPP pulls 7 percent of funding from the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP), and Healthy Forests Reserve Program (HFRP).
Because RCPP pulls funding from CSP, EQIP, ACEP, and HFRP, cuts to the underlying programs mean cuts to RCPP. Unfortunately, the final FY 2015 appropriations package, which Congress passed in December, severely cut CSP funding and, to a lesser extent, EQIP funding. The cuts do no only impact farmers using CSP and EQIP; they also mean that $10 million fewer dollars were available for RCPP projects in FY 2015.
Moreover, due to congressional budget scoring, the cut made to CSP in the FY 2015 bill is amplified over the next 10 years so that the total cut to RCPP funding is closer to $40 million. For a program that is in such high demand, where NRCS can only fund $373 million out of the $2.8 billion originally requested by potential partners, $40 million makes a big difference.
NSAC vehemently opposes cuts to mandatory conservation programs during the annual appropriations process and will continue to fight against them as the FY 2016 funding process ramps up.
We expect an announcement for the next round of RCPP sometime this spring or summer. Applications submitted but not accepted for FY 2014 and 2015 funding may be resubmitted. Groups who submitted applications can also seek guidance from NRCS on how to improve proposals to have a greater chance of getting selected in the next round.