January 23, 2020
Every five years (or so), a new farm bill is passed which makes important changes to federal farm and food programs. The 2018 Farm Bill, passed in late December 2018, was no exception. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) was one of many programs to receive updates in the farm bill, and now those policy changes are being interpreted by USDA through the farm bill implementation and rulemaking processes.
In December 2019, USDA announced its Interim Final Rule (IFR) for EQIP. The IFR guides USDA’s implementation of farm bill changes to EQIP, including the addition of soil health planning to the list of activities eligible for assistance, and the creation of a category of EQIP Conservation Innovation Grants (CIG) for soil health. Unfortunately, with the exception of a few improvements, USDA’s IFR ignores or sells short several key aspects of the program.
EQIP is a voluntary program that helps farmers pay for conservation projects on their land, including practices such as buffers, alley cropping, cover cropping, hoop houses, nutrient and pest management, and prescribed grazing. The program focuses on support for farmers putting environmental best practices in place for the first time; EQIP’s sister program, the Conservation Stewardship Program, supports more advanced conservation activities.
Voluntary conservation programs like EQIP are incredibly important. Over 60 percent of land in the United States is privately owned, and federal conservation programs serve as a critical resource for landowners seeking to address serious agro-environmental problems. For farmers, EQIP eliminates the need to choose between good conservation and making ends meet. The many successes of EQIP and CSP program users serve to show that producers can make a living off the land while protecting natural resources and investing in sustainability.
For more information on EQIP, check out NSAC’s Grassroots Guide to Federal Farm and Food Programs.
In the 2018 Farm Bill, two of the listed priorities for EQIP were to increase resilience to “weather volatility” and improve “drought resilience” – phenomena we know are closely linked to a changing climate. The bill also added soil nutrient testing and soil health planning to EQIP and set aside some funding for on-farm soil health projects. These were extremely positive improvements given that soil health is a vital ingredient to a healthy farm. Farmers nationwide know that keeping more organic matter in the soil helps retain moisture during droughts, soak up water during high rain events, and sequester carbon to help mitigate climate change.
Unfortunately, USDA’s IFR mentions neither soil health nor climate resilience in the list of eight EQIP national priorities. As climate change intensifies and the impacts of extreme weather events become increasingly dire, USDA should be giving farmers as many tools as possible to build resilience. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) strongly urges USDA to amend the rule, and to run EQIP with the farm bill’s goals in mind.
EQIP payments were limited to $450,000 per operation in the 2018 Farm Bill. This change was made to ensure that payments wouldn’t just go to a handful of producers, but that EQIP support was also accessible to small and medium-sized farms. NSAC was supportive of this change, even though average EQIP contracts are less than $100,000, so arguably the farm bill’s limit is actually still too high.
Despite this statutory limit, the EQIP IFR sets a payment limit of $900,000 for many of the nation’s largest farms, those organized as general partnerships, as well as for some very large irrigated farms located in particular irrigation districts. This is confusing, considering that USDA’s job is to put in practice what was written in the farm bill – nowhere in the farm bill is this special $900,000 limit mentioned. Adding such a substantial loophole in the rulemaking process expressly goes against the will and intent of Congress as laid out in the 2018 Farm Bill.
EQIP’s funding pool is not unlimited. There are only so many dollars that can be paid out, and only so many acres that can be enrolled. The more we pay out to large contract holders, the less funding will be available to the small and medium sized farms that make up the heart and soul of American agriculture.
Perhaps no issue has been more contentious within EQIP than the program’s support for confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs). Congress initially prohibited the participation of CAFOs in EQIP, but changed the law in 2002 to allow their participation. Today, the building and expansion of animal waste storage for large industrial operations has become one of the most prolific uses of EQIP funding.
When Congress decided to open EQIP funding to use by CAFOs, they also stipulated that those operations would have to develop and implement a USDA-approved comprehensive nutrient management plan. Although this requirement does not nearly offset the negative impacts of opening EQIP up to CAFOs, the implementation of these nutrient management plans at least helped to ensure a modest degree of environmental protection.
The 2018 Farm Bill further weakened EQIP’s focus on sustainability by changing the requirements around the comprehensive nutrient management plans. The plans must still be completed, but not fully implemented, instead the 2018 Farm Bill said CAFOs can simply show progress toward meeting the standard to qualify for funding.
In the IFR, USDA goes beyond the eroding changes includes in the 2018 Farm Bill, by removing the requirement to implement a nutrient management plan entirely. CAFOs are only required to develop a plan by the end of their EQIP contract but are not required to implement it. This is completely contrary to the language of the farm bill and to the long-standing “progressive planning” policy of USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. The IFR clearly violates the law and must be changed.
In addition to the most egregious issues in the IFR outlined above, other issues that need attention and/or improved clarity include provisions related to organic farms, beginning and socially-disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, and irrigation districts.
NSAC calls on farmers and advocates to submit their comments to USDA on the IFR and demand that EQIP remain focused on conservation and climate resilience. If you think that climate resilience and soil health should be priorities of farm conservation programs, or that small and medium-sized farms should have access to resources for on-farm conservation, be sure to take action today! Learn more about this action opportunity and access NSAC’s EQIP comment template on our Take Action page.