The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) recently provided its state NRCS offices with instructions on how and when to administer various conservation initiatives for fiscal year (FY) 2016. The guidance, Instructions for Implementing National Program and Landscape Conservation Initiatives, covers initiatives that are funded through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and Agriculture Management Assistance (AMA) program.
This set of instructions covers a number of initiatives that NSAC tracks closely, including the National Organic Initiative and the High Tunnel System. It also covers the National Air Quality Initiative and the National On-Farm Energy Initiative.
Application Deadlines Available
NRCS’s guidance document provides states with options for cut-off, or batching, dates by which producers must apply in order to be considered for funding in FY 2016. States are approved to select any third Friday in the months of October through August for application deadline or cutoff periods for the current fiscal year. Unfortunately, NRCS does not compile a list of all state deadlines, though a central clearinghouse for this information would greatly increase awareness and understanding of the batching period structure.
NRCS national headquarters (NHQ) allows states to establish multiple cut-off dates for the initiatives, and for the Organic Initiative even encourages multiple deadlines. In our view, however, in order for this to be effectively adopted, State Conservationists should actually be required to establish a minimum of three batching deadlines spread throughout the year.
While NRCS does accept EQIP applications on a continuous basis throughout the year, State Conservationists batch and rank applications periodically, so knowing the exact state deadlines is key to ensuring producers are able to receive funding this fiscal year.
All states are required to post program information to their website at least 30 days before the ranking cutoff deadline, so check your state’s NRCS website to see if they have announced their ranking dates for FY 2016. If they have not already posted these dates, now is the time to contact your state office to inquire about the deadlines.
Organic Initiative Allocations for FY 16
The EQIP Organic Initiative, one of the four national EQIP initiatives, provides financial assistance to producers who are certified organic, transitioning to organic production, or exempt from certification under National Organic Program (NOP) rules because they sell less than $5,000 a year in organic agricultural products. These producers are also all eligible to apply for funds through general EQIP.
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. As in years past, national and local ranking criteria both account for 25 percent of available ranking points, state criteria accounts for 40 percent, and a cost efficiency score, which ensures that the applications selected for funding are providing the most benefit for the cost associated with the practices to be implemented, accounts for 10 percent.
One significant change from the FY 2015 guidance is the instruction for State Conservationists to allocate the minimum level of funds to support the Organic Initiative. While this is an improvement from FY 2014 and FY 15, when NHQ did not provide an allocation of funds to each state for the Organic Initiative, it does not return to the allocation process in place between 2009 and 2013, during which time NHQ provided a specific allocation for the Organic Initiative directly to the states without them putting in a request, and the allocation could be rolled over if funds were not used.
Despite the fact that two batching deadlines (October and September) have already passed, NRCS is still working to finalize the communication and allocation process at the state and regional levels, as well as the exact factors and formulas that influence the minimum allocation recommended for each state. We hope to be able to report that they have caught up to the already passing timeline soon.
Improving the Organic Initiative for 2016 and Beyond
In recommendations submitted to NRCS in September 2015, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) urged NRCS to provide mandatory Organic Initiative allocation levels for all states, as designated funds are absolutely necessary to address dramatic decline in participation levels since the program’s allocation structure was changed.
In addition to our recommendations to improve program access and utilization for FY 2016, NSAC’s top priority for the long-term success of the Organic Initiative is a restructuring of the program to focus on supporting transitioning to organic farmers, with concurrent changes to general EQIP to better accommodate certified organic producers. We propose that this new structure should be developed over the course of the next year through the work of an advisory stakeholder committee, to be rolled out beginning in FY 2017. The change would also need to be accompanied by increased support and promotion of the opportunity for certified organic producers within general EQIP.
Transitioning producers face a unique set of challenges, and the Organic Initiative has enormous potential to provide them with much needed support through conservation practices and technical assistance, while simultaneously ensuring expanding opportunity for certified organic producers in general EQIP.
Seasonal High Tunnels Offered a Practice or State Initiative
The EQIP Seasonal High Tunnel Initiative provides cost-share funding and technical assistance to farmers who want to extend the growing season on their farms by using high tunnels.
The high tunnel initiative began as a pilot program and interim conservation practice standard in 2009, and it is now available as a permanent conservation practice standard, Seasonal High Tunnel for Crops (Conservation Practice #325), which must be offered in all states.
While the pilot program set a maximum size of 2,178 square feet (5 percent of an acre) of high tunnel that could be funded through NRCS, states are no longer permitted to limit the size of the High Tunnel System within a contract, but they can opt to establish a cap for the level of funding that participants can receive for the practice.
Beginning this fiscal year, NRCS will allow states to decide whether they will offer high tunnels as a state initiative or simply a conservation practice available as part of general EQIP. While all states are required to offer the practice, NRCS hopes that option to offer it as an initiative will help states who choose to do so to promote the practice and increase high tunnel participation in their states.
In the past two years, beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers have participated in the program in increasing numbers, reflecting a critical opportunity for season extension and market expansion for these groups, and states should ensure that these trends continue as the structure of the high tunnel initiative shifts for FY 2016.
Landscape Initiatives Available for FY 2016
In addition to the national initiatives available for FY 2016, the guidance document also identifies thirteen landscape conservation initiatives that provide support in targeted regions to address priority natural resource concerns.
Examples of landscape conservation initiative available for FY 2016 include the Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative (MRBI), the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI), and the Honey Bee Pollinator Initiative (HBP).
Farmers enrolled in MRBI projects receive financial and technical assistance through multiple 2014 Farm Bill conservation programs, including EQIP and the Conservation Stewardship Program. This assistance allows farmers to implement conservation practices that reduce sediment and nutrient loss to waters that eventually reach the Gulf of Mexico.
Similarly, GLRI aims to improve water quality and enhance wildlife habitat within selected watersheds of the Great Lakes Basin in eight participating states. NRCS works with farmers and landowners to combat invasive species, protect watershed and shorelines from non-point source solution, and restore wetlands and other critical habitat areas.
Additionally, HBP targets six states in the upper Midwest that are home to 70 percent of the nation’s commercial honey bee hives in order to provide critical forage habitats where it is most needed. Through the initiative, NRCS works with landowners to make bee-friendly conservation improvements to their land, such as planting cover crops, wildflowers, or native grasses and improving management of their grazing lands.
Reach Out Now
As as the FY 2016 sign-up for the landscape and national conservation initiatives move forward, organizations should reach out to farmers and ranchers and encourage them to contact their local NRCS office for more information on application deadlines and available initiatives.
Stay tuned for an update next week on general EQIP and newly released data on participation levels from FY 2015!