NSAC's Blog

USDA Releases Guidance Documents for Conservation Initiatives

November 13, 2014

In the final days of October, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) provided its state NRCS offices with national guidance on when and how to administer various conservation initiatives for fiscal year (FY) 2015.  The initiatives are funded through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and Agricultural Management Assistance (AMA) program.

An October 23 directive provided guidance covering a number of initiatives that NSAC tracks closely, including the National Organic Initiative (NOI) and “Seasonal High Tunnel System for Crops” (Conservation Practice code 798), which in the past has been offered as an initiative.  The guidance also covers the National Air Quality Initiative (NAQI) and National On-Farm Energy Initiative (NOFEI).

On October 27, NRCS issued a separate guidance with a list of options for cut-off dates by which producers must apply in order to be considered for funding in FY 2015.  Similar to previous years, the cut-off date choices for states for both national and landscape initiatives are October 17, November 21, December 19, January 16, February 20, March 20, April 17, and May 15.  NRCS national headquarters allows states to set multiple cut-off dates, and even encourages several application periods for the Organic Initiative.

All states are required to offer the national initiatives, including the Organic Initiative.  In addition, all states are required to offer the seasonal high tunnel system for crops (798) to producers; however, according to NRCS, “the State Conservationist may determine whether to offer the [high tunnel] practice through a State initiative or as part of their State’s general program opportunities.  States that offer the practice through a State-led initiative are responsible for establishing their own ranking criteria and list of supporting practices.”

States are required to announce dates at least 30 days in advance.  However, if there is a compelling reason that a tight turnaround is required, NRCS can waive the 30-day requirement.

Check your state’s NRCS website to see if they have announced ranking dates for FY 2015If they have not done so, now is the time to contact your state office to inquire about the dates.

Important Information about the 2015 EQIP Organic Initiative

Once again, the EQIP Organic Initiative is available to certified organic producers, transitioning-to-organic producers, and producers who are exempt from certification under National Organic Program (NOP) rules:

  • Certified organic producers must provide NRCS with a copy of their NOP Organic Certificate or proof of good standing from their certifying agent.  They must also maintain their certification throughout the life of the EQIP contract.
  • Both transition-to-organic and exempt producers must self certify that they will develop an Organic System Plan (OSP); however, like last year, transitioning producers no longer have to provide contact information for their certifying agent.  In previous years, this requirement was problematic for transitioning producers because most producers do not establish a relationship with a certifier until they are ready to be certified.

Applications for the Organic Initiative are ranked based on national and state-level criteria included in the bulletin, as well as local criteria, which is to be set by the states.  National ranking criteria will account for 25 percent of available ranking points, while state criteria will account for 40 percent of the points.  Local ranking criteria will account for 25 percent of available ranking points.  A cost efficiency score will determine the remaining 10 percent.

The FY 2015 guidance is not dramatically different from last year’s guidance.  While the state-level ranking criteria provide higher maximum point values for soil quality enhancement and erosion control practices and slightly lower point values for water quality protection, most of the criteria remain the same.

Like last year, there are no ranking threshold cut-off points for the Organic Initiative in FY 2015.

Seasonal High Tunnels

For a second year in a row, the national guidance does not restrict the size of seasonal high tunnel structures.  Instead, states will have the option of setting a payment cap consistent with the Conservation Program Manual.

Like last year, NRCS will not require state NRCS offices to offer the High Tunnel Initiative, however states are required to offer the conservation practice standard, Seasonal High Tunnel System for Crops (798).  In other words, high tunnels must be offered to farmers in all states, but states have the option of whether or not to make it a special initiative with its own separate pool of funds.

We expect that rather than offer the stand-alone initiative, some states will chose instead to offer the practice as part of regular EQIP.  We strongly encourage readers to monitor the status of the High Tunnel Initiative in their states.  If your state chooses not to offer the Initiative, we want to hear from you.  NSAC remains interested in examining how applicants that propose to implement the high tunnel practice (798) stack up against other EQIP applicants.  We suspect that USDA may be monitoring this as well, and may go back to mandatory initiative status in the future if it appears farmers are having difficulty securing high tunnel contracts.

On-Farm Energy Initiative

Last year, the FY 2014 guidance for the EQIP On-Farm Energy Initiative allowed states with a large backlog of completed Agricultural Energy Management Plan (AgEMP) Conservation Activity Plans to rank those applications separately from applications for new AgEMP Conservation Activity Plans.  This continues in the 2015 guidance.

Additionally, the 2015 guidance provides states with some additional flexibility when it comes to offering supporting practices.  Through the NOFEI, states are required to offer six core practices, including AgEMPs, irrigation water management, lighting system improvements, and more.  Last year, USDA listed six approved supporting practices, including cover cropping, no-till farming, and windbreak establishment.  This year, states can offer any supporting practices where the impacts on energy inefficiency, energy savings, and associated environmental benefits have been evaluated.

National Air Quality Initiative

NAQI is a new initiative aimed at reducing the impact of harmful agricultural air pollutants, including particulate matter, greenhouse gases, and odors.  The program provides funding for agricultural operations in three priority areas: national non-attainment counties in Arizona and California, regional air quality priorities across multiple states, and state air quality priority areas for more localized or state-level air quality concerns.

States must request to participate in NAQI by December 1, 2014.  Priority will be given to initiatives seeking to mitigate pollutants contributing to non-attainment of federal standards, address existing or potential agriculture-related regulations, or those involving external partners.

As the FY 2015 sign up for NRCS conservation initiatives moves forward, organizations should reach out to farmers and ranchers who may be interested and encourage them to contact their local NRCS field office.  We will monitor the progress of the FY 2015 sign up, and will report final numbers late next year.

Categories: Conservation, Energy & Environment, Organic

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