Regional Conservation Partnership Program


Targeting natural resource concerns through local conservation partnerships

Ensuring clean water, healthy soils, and well-managed working farmland is in the best interest of both farmers and the public. Through the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP), the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), the expertise of farmers, conservation and farm organizations, and state and local agencies are brought together to achieve shared conservation goals. NRCS partners with state agencies, and non-governmental organizations to provide financial and technical assistance to farmers to install conservation activities to tackle priority natural resource concerns in a state or region.

Through RCPP, NRCS and its partners help producers install and maintain conservation activities like cover cropping and nutrient management in selected project areas – from small watersheds in the Chesapeake Bay to grasslands in a prime sage grouse nesting area in the mountain West.

Learn More About RCPP: 

Program Basics

The purpose of RCPP is to further the conservation, protection, restoration and sustainable use of soil, water, wildlife, agricultural land, and related natural resources on eligible land on a regional or watershed scale.

NRCS administers RCPP, but unlike many other NRCS programs, farmers and ranchers do not apply directly for funding through RCPP. Instead, partner entities who work with farmers on the ground, submit project proposals to NRCS. Once NRCS selects proposals from these entities, farmers and ranchers are able to apply through NRCS to participate in an RCPP project.

Some RCPP projects focus on specific resource issues of heightened concern in a given watershed or region. Others focus on a given set or type of farmers within a state or area interested in pursuing innovative conservation objectives – such as nutrient pollution reduction in impaired watersheds, cover crop adoption to improve soil health and reduce runoff, or market development for carbon sequestration credit trading.

Program funds can be used by conservation partner organizations to provide assistance directly to producers to implement conservation activities on their farms. In addition, funding can also 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.

Partners are required to provide a significant contribution to the overall cost of the project, including in-kind services such as monitoring, conservation planning, and producer assistance.

The 2018 Farm Bill modifies the funding pools within RCPP – allocating 50 percent of total funding for projects in Critical Conservation Areas (CCAs), and 50 percent for state and multi-state projects administered at the local level with the advice of the applicable State technical committees.

NRCS has established eight CCAs:

See this NRCS map for CCA boundaries.

The 2018 Farm Bill modified the structure of RCPP agreements such that participating farmers and ranchers no longer enroll in one of the existing NRCS conservation “covered” programs, but instead will enroll in a stand-alone RCPP contract with its own rules and regulations. Participants will use the covered programs as a guide for what conservation activities can be done through partnership agreements and producer contracts.

Eligibility

Generally, non-profit groups, conservation districts, or other state or local agencies take the lead in putting together an RCPP proposal. Successful projects should ideally work closely with farmers in the region – the more farmers are involved in the planning stages of a project, the more likely that they’ll participate in the project once it is underway.

The following entities are eligible to act as project partners:

  • Producer associations or groups
  • State or unit of local government
  • Native American tribes
  • Acequias
  • Farmer cooperatives
  • Water, irrigation, or rural water districts or associations, or other organizations with water delivery authority to producers
  • Municipal water or wastewater treatment entities
  • Institutions of higher education
  • Organizations or entities with a history of working with producers on agricultural land to address natural resource concerns
  • Conservation Districts
  • Land trusts or other organizations who have authority to hold conservation easements

RCPP projects within a CCA must address one or more priority resource concerns, including:

  • Water quality improvement – including through reducing erosion, promoting sediment control, and addressing nutrient management activities affecting large bodies of water of regional, national, or international significance
  • Water quantity improvement – including related to drought, groundwater, surface water, aquifer, or other water sources, or water retention and flood prevention
  • Wildlife habitat restoration to address species of concern at a Federal, State, or local level
  • Other natural resource improvements within the CCA

Under a partnership proposal, partners must:

  • Define the scope of a project, including one or more conservation benefits that the project will achieve, the eligible activities to be conducted under the project to achieve conservation benefits, the implementation timeline for carrying out the project, the geographic area covered, and the planning, outreach, implementation, and assessment to be conducted
  • Conduct outreach and education to producers for potential participation
  • If requested, act on behalf of a producer participating in the project in applying
  • Leverage financial or technical assistance provided by USDA with additional contributions
  • Conduct an assessment of the progress made by the project in achieving each conservation benefit defined in the partnership agreement, including in a quantified form to the extent practicable
  • Report to USDA on results and funds leveraged at the conclusion of the project

Under the 2014 Farm Bill, RCPP project proposals were ranked according to a four-part ranking system as described below:

  • Solutions (25 percent) – How partners identify conservation opportunities, establish goals, and design enduring and locally supported solutions
  • Contributions (25 percent) – An assessment of the partner contribution, both the amount of funding and the extent of in-kind activities that partners will contribute
  • Innovation (25 percent) – The extent to which a project proposal is innovative. NRCS provides the following examples of “innovation”: the proposal cites recent scientific findings; the project helps producers avoid regulation; the project uses environmental markets; or the partners evaluated the cost-effectiveness of at least two approaches.
  • Participation (25 percent) – The extent of participation by farmers, private businesses, utilities, and other stakeholders

Note: NRCS is still in the process of writing rules for the revised program, including ranking criteria, and has not yet released the updates for the new structure.

The 2018 Farm Bill modifies the prior authority for Alternative Funding Arrangements to allow an eligible partner to enter into an Alternative Funding Arrangement or a grant agreement, through which eligible partners can implement projects and provide financial assistance directly to producers. NRCS can now enter into up to 15 Alternative Funding Arrangements or grant agreements per year, which includes the following types of projects:

  • Infrastructure investments relating to agricultural or nonindustrial private forest production that would benefit multiple producers and address natural resource concerns such as drought, wildlife, or water quality impairment
  • Projects addressing natural resource concerns in coordination with producers, including the development and implementation of watershed, habitat, or other area restoration plans
  • Projects that use innovative approaches to leverage the Federal investment in conservation with private financial mechanisms, in conjunction with agricultural production or forest resource management, such as performance-based payments and environmental markets
  • Other projects for which NRCS determines that the goals of RCPP would be easier to achieve through the alternative funding structure

The Program in Action

Since RCPP’s creation in 2014, USDA has partnered with local and state units of government, non-profit organizations, and private sector actors to invest more than $2.4 billion in conservation projects across the country. Projects have focused on wildlife conservation, soil health, water quality, and many other conservation priorities.

Several NSAC member organizations have leveraged RCPP to advance high-priority conservation activities in their regions, including:

  • The 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 to create a network of “Soil Health Model Farms.”
  • The National Center for Appropriate Technology received a RCPP award to help farmers and ranchers adopt rotational grazing systems in Mississippi. The project also seeks to develop a peer-to-peer support network and to create a group of “pasture innovators” – ranchers who will specialize in using unique grazing practices tailored to specific breeds of livestock in Mississippi.
  • Land for Good is a partner to two RCPP projects awarded in New England to provide one-on-one farm succession advising and related training with/for transitioning farmers. The Upper Valley Farmland Protection Initiative will prioritize protection in three areas: farms located near impaired waters, where there are low percentages of protected farms, and where historically underserved producers lack resources for improvements. In the Lower Merrimack Watershed, the project will work to protect 400 acres of critical farmland in an area where rapid urbanization, high land values, and aging landowners have rendered these farms vulnerable to conversion; conversion of these farms would result in corresponding losses for water quality and habitat.
  • Maine Farmland Trust (MFT) received two RCPP awards in FY18. Through one RCPP project, MFT will work to protect high value marsh habitat contained within Maine farms. They will utilize the Agricultural Land Easement (ALE) component of ACEP, as well as EQIP-funded Conservation Activity Plans to identify resource concerns and the conservation practices that could be implemented to support the health of marsh habitat. Within the other, MFT will work to place conservation easements on properties that landowners are eager to protect, helping to address food insecurity in the region. 

Read more about how programs like RCPP have helped connect partner organizations with farmers and NRCS on NSAC’s blog:

How to Apply and Program Resources

Partners interested in submitting a RCPP project proposal should check the NRCS RCPP webpage for information regarding the current Announcement of Program Producers should check with their local NRCS service center to see if there is a RCPP project in their area. Producers may also request that a project partner submit an application on their behalf to participate in a selected project. Interested partners may contact NRCS directly for more information on applying.

For more information:

Read about the latest news on RCPP on our blog!

Program History, Funding, and Farm Bill Changes

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 Basin Program (GLBP).

Under the 2014 Farm Bill, RCPP retained $100 million per year in existing funding from the Agricultural Water Enhancement Program and Chesapeake Bay Watershed Initiative. Additionally, RCPP pulled 7 percent of funding from the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, Conservation Stewardship Program, Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, and Healthy Forests Reserve Program (previously the “covered programs”).

The 2018 Farm Bill restructures RCPP such that it no longer pulls funding from the covered programs, nor do farmers and ranchers who participate in an RCPP project utilize the covered programs directly. Instead, the 2018 Farm Bill provides RCPP with $300 million per year in total funding, and also eliminates RCPP’s utilization of the covered programs directly within an RCPP project.

Under the 2018 Farm Bill, farmers and ranchers who want to participate within an accepted project will enroll in an RCPP contract. NRCS has not yet released the rules and guidance for the restructured partnership agreements or the new contracts with producers. While the covered programs (as defined in statute) will be used as a guide for what conservation activities can be done through partnership agreements and contracts with producers, USDA will still need to issue new rules and regulations for RCPP agreements and contracts.

In addition to the overarching changes to RCPP’s structure and funding, the 2018 Farm Bill includes several additional updates to the partnership program. The farm bill authorizes NRCS to extend an RCPP agreement for longer than 5 years if necessary to meet project objectives, and also allows for renewals of existing RCPP contracts for one additional 5-year agreement. The 2018 Farm Bill also modifies the partner contribution to clarify that the contribution can be direct funding, in-kind support, or a combination of direct funding and in-kind support.

The 2018 Farm Bill adds new direction regarding quantifying the environmental, economic, and social outcomes of RCPP projects, and directs all states to identify a program coordinator who will be responsible for providing assistance to eligible partners under RCPP.

In recognizing the importance of project development and outreach activities for an RCPP project, the new farm bill authorizes USDA to provide technical assistance funding to eligible partners. This funding will help partners to conduct project development and outreach activities in a project area, including outreach to producers for potential participation in the project, establishing baseline metrics, and providing technical assistance to producers. The 2018 Farm Bill also provides new direction for USDA and eligible partners to conduct outreach to beginning, veteran, socially disadvantaged, and limited resource farmers and ranchers to encourage their participation within an RCPP project.

This page will be further updated as NRCS releases the updated rules and regulations under the program’s new structure.

Regional Conservation Partnership Program 

Year Funding (in millions)
2019 $300
2020 $300
2021 $300
2022 $300
2023 $300
5 yr projection $1,500
10 yr projection $3,000

Please note: The funding levels in the chart above show the amount of mandatory funding reserved by the 2018 Farm Bill for this program to be provided through USDA’s Commodity Credit Corporation. However, Congress does at times pass subsequent appropriations legislation that caps the funding level for a particular year for a particular program at less than provided by the farm bill in order to use the resulting savings to fund a different program. In addition, RCPP is subject to automatic cuts as part of an annual sequestration process established by the Budget Control Act of 2011. Therefore, despite its “mandatory” status, the funding level for a given year could be less than the farm bill dictates should the Appropriations Committees decide to raid the farm bill to fund other programs under its jurisdiction. 

For the most current information on program funding levels, please see NSAC’s Annual Appropriations Chart.

Authorizing Language 

Section 2701 of the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 amends Title XII of the Food Security Act of 1985, to be codified at 16 U.S.C. Section 3871.


Last updated in July 2019.