In addition to providing food and fiber, farmers and ranchers are important managers of our natural resources. The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) is a voluntary conservation program that provides farmers and ranchers with financial cost-share assistance and technical assistance to implement conservation practices on working agricultural land. EQIP assistance is available through a general pool and also through special initiatives, which highlight specific practices or natural resources, such as the Organic Initiative, which provides separate funding pools for transitioning and certified organic producers.
Through EQIP, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) supports producers interested in conserving and improving natural resources on their farms and ranches. EQIP participants install or implement structural, vegetative, and management practices – like improving irrigation efficiency, restoring pasture, or nutrient and pest management – on eligible agricultural land and nonindustrial private forestland. In return, through a contractual agreement, NRCS provides financial cost-share assistance and technical assistance. EQIP is voluntary and is administered by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).
Payments for conservation improvements and activities cover income foregone as well as costs incurred that are associated with planning, design, materials, equipment, installation, labor, management, maintenance, and training. When determining the amount and rate of payment to compensate income foregone, USDA can weight those practices that promote soil health; water quality and quantity improvement; nutrient management; pest management; air quality improvement; wildlife habitat development (including pollinator habitat); and invasive species management.
EQIP may share up to 75 percent of the costs of certain conservation practices. However, socially disadvantaged, limited-resource, beginning, and veteran farmer and ranchers are eligible for cost-share rates of up to 90 percent of project costs. This same population of producers is also eligible for up to 50 percent advance payment for costs associated with planning, design, materials, equipment, installation, labor, management, maintenance, or training.
Five percent of EQIP funds are set-aside in a designated pool for beginning farmers and ranchers, and an additional 5 percent is set-aside for socially disadvantaged farmers – including minority and tribal producers. Additionally, veteran farmers are given preference within these two priority set-asides.
The length of an EQIP contract varies, and can last up to ten years. However, most contracts last for one to three years. Contract activities are carried out according to an EQIP plan of operations developed in conjunction with the producer. The plan identifies the appropriate conservation practice or practices to address the resource concerns. Examples of vegetative and structural conservation practices include terraces, manure waste lagoons, irrigation equipment, grassed waterways, filter strips, and wildlife habitat enhancement. Examples of management practices include conservation crop rotation, nutrient management, drainage management, and integrated pest management. The practices are subject to NRCS technical standards adapted for local conditions. Many specific features of EQIP are determined by NRCS State Conservationists with advice from local working groups and State Technical Committees.
EQIP also supports several national initiatives that may be available to producers engaged in specific kinds of agricultural activities or located in specific geographic areas. Current national initiatives include the On-Farm Energy Initiative, the Seasonal High Tunnel Initiative, the National Water Quality Incentives Initiative, and the Organic Initiative, described in more detail below.
To be eligible, an applicant must be the owner or operator of eligible land in agricultural, forestry, or livestock production. Eligible land includes cropland, rangeland, pasture, nonindustrial private forest land, and other farm or ranch lands. 60 percent of total EQIP funding is set aside for livestock operations at the national level, and at least five percent of funds are required to target practices that support the restoration, development, protection, and improvement of wildlife habitat. Some states also reserve funds for particular types of operations – such as confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) – or particular resource concerns – such as dedicated funding in certain Midwestern states to support pollinator health, particularly honeybees. Moreover, NRCS has established several separate funding pools through special initiatives, such as the Organic Initiative.
The program is competitive, with farmers submitting applications for EQIP contracts that are ranked based on criteria developed by both the NRCS national headquarters and NRCS State Conservationists. The ranking criteria vary from state to state, but in general applications are ranked based on the overall cost-effectiveness of the proposed approach compared to the anticipated conservation benefits of the project; how effectively and comprehensively they address specified resource concerns; the best fulfillment of EQIP program goals; and the improvement of conservation practices or systems in place on the operation at the time the contract offer is accepted, or will complete a conservation system.
All activities under this program must work toward conservation of natural resources. All approved applicants are responsible for working with NRCS to develop and submit a conservation plan that will address the situation on the applicant’s land relevant to the identified conservation needs or objectives that are to be addressed.
The Organic Initiative provides financial assistance to organic producers looking to address resource concerns by implementing and installing conservation practices tailored to organic producers. It is available in all states and all counties through local field offices.
Examples of conservation activities eligible for funding through the Organic Initiative include: developing conservation plans; establishing buffer zones; planning and installing pollinator habitat; improving irrigation efficiency; and enhancing cropping rotations and nutrient management, among others.
Organic, transitioning-to-organic, and producers exempt from National Organic Program (NOP) certification requirements are eligible to contract with NRCS to install and implement organic-specific conservation activities consistent with an organic system plan. These producers compete in separate funding pools, and contract payments are capped at $20,000 annually or $80,000 over any six-year period. Organic producers can also apply for the general EQIP program, which has a higher payment cap, but is also more competitive.
The EQIP Seasonal High Tunnel Initiative provides cost-share funding and technical assistance to farmers who want to extend the growing seasons on their farms by using high tunnels.
High tunnels (also known as hoop houses) are structures that modify the growing environment through the construction of hoops covered with plastic that are placed over the growing area. Unlike some greenhouses, high tunnels require no energy as they rely on natural sunlight to modify the inside climate, creating favorable conditions for producing vegetables and specialty crops.
The seasonal high tunnel initiative began as a three-year pilot program in 2009, establishing high tunnels as an interim conservation practice standard. The pilot program was designed to help NRCS assess environmental benefits that may result from the use of the tunnels. After three years of continued growth and interest in the program, the seasonal high tunnel is now an established conservation practice standard (#325 in the NRCS numbering system).
EQIP assistance has been used across the country to help farmers conserve natural resources in many ways. Between 2009 and 2015, NRCS obligated over $6.4 billion in financial and technical assistance through EQIP cost-share contracts. Over 260,000 farmers and ranchers received contracts, covering more than 81 million acres. In fiscal year 2015 alone, there were over 32,900 EQIP contracts covering nearly 9 million acres and obligating over $861 million in financial assistance. The EQIP Organic Initiative accounted for 339 of those contracts, totaling over 21,000 acres and over $4.6 million in financial assistance.
Using EQIP financial and technical assistance, over 1 million acres were planted with cover crops in FY 2015 alone. During that same year, over 7,000 contracts were granted to implement prescribed grazing on land covering over 3 million acres.
Since 2009, the Seasonal High Tunnel Initiative has provided assistance for over 14,000 high tunnels in all 50 states, and has obligated over $93 million in cost share assistance. What’s more in FY2015, 12 percent of high tunnel contract holders also held contracts for nutrient management and 5 percent used conservation crop rotations with NRCS assistance.
Here are just a few examples of the impact this program is having on the ground:
Read more about how EQIP has helped farmers and ranchers steward their land
NRCS accepts EQIP and EQIP OI applications year-round on a continuous basis, but State Conservationists batch and rank applications periodically throughout the year. State and local NRCS offices will have a list of batching dates, as well as information regarding the practices and special initiatives available in that state. See the link below on locating the NRCS office near you.
EQIP was first authorized in the 1996 Farm Bill and revised in each subsequent farm bill since then. Compared to the 2002 and 2008 Farm Bills, the 2014 Farm Bill makes relatively few changes to the program. Most notably, the 2014 Farm Bill consolidates the separate Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP) into EQIP, and establishes a 5 percent floor for projects that protect and enhance wildlife habitat. The 2014 Farm Bill also increases the advance payment amount from 30 to 50 percent for beginning, socially disadvantaged, and limited resource producers, and adds veteran producers to the list eligible for the advanced payment.
The 2014 Farm Bill provides EQIP funding on a permanent basis. As a result, the program will not require new funding at the end of the five-year farm bill period. The 2014 Farm Bill merges the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program into EQIP and kept the combined program at roughly the same funding level as the 2008 Farm Bill.
2014 Farm Bill Mandatory EQIP Funding
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Please note: The funding levels in the chart above show the amount of mandatory funding reserved by the 2014 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. 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. In addition, EQIP is subject to automatic cuts as part of an annual sequestration process established by the Budget Control Act of 2011.
Under the 2008 Farm Bill, EQIP payments were capped at $300,000 over any six-year period, but the limitation could be waived and increased to $450,000 where the Secretary determined that the project was of “special environmental significance,” which specifically included methane digesters. The 2014 Farm Bill eliminates this waiver, but increases the overall payment limit to $450,000 over the five-year life of the bill. However, organic producers participating in the Organic Initiative are still held to a separate payment limit of $20,000 annually, or $80,000 over any six-year period.
Section 2201 of the Agricultural Act of 2014 amends Chapter 4 of subtitle D of title XII of the Food Security Act of 1985, to be codified at 16 U.S.C. 3839aa.
Last updated in October 2016.