Last month, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) announced awards for 49 new projects under the Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative (GLCI), offering technical assistance to promote the planning and implementation of conservation grazing practices. GLCI supports peer-to-peer education and grazing technical assistance to help producers maximize the benefits of implementing sustainable grazing plans. The most recent cooperative agreements total $12 million, expanding the ability of partners around the country to provide technical assistance to livestock producers and increase conservation practice implementation on grazing operations.
Grazing advocates and educators have been eagerly awaiting the announcement of these awards, the first time GLCI funding has touched down on the landscape since 2009, elevating a long-overlooked conservation program.
The Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative provides direct support to farmers and ranchers pursuing conservation grazing practices on American farmland. Not only do these projects offer conservation technical assistance, but they also reach a variety of producers, including Indigenous, women, veteran, and other minority producer groups. Grazing technical assistance additionally supports new and beginning farmers because grazing livestock operations represent a less capital intensive entry point into farming.
According to NRCS, the Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative is “a coordinated effort to identify priority issues, find solutions, and effect change on private grazing land, enhancing existing conservation programs.” Last year’s call for applications sought “to expand the delivery of conservation technical assistance to support grazing planning and conservation practice implementation and monitoring, conferences and other education, demonstrations, producer networks, workforce training, research and outreach projects to improve agricultural resilience.”
The 49 cooperative agreements employ a variety of techniques to improve the access that livestock operations have to conservation grazing resources. For example, while some projects are focused on personnel improvements, including hiring grazing task forces and offering local grazing forums, others are focused on improving research investments relevant to local grazing needs. Others focus on interactive technical assistance opportunities, such as field days, workshops, and mentorship programs, which are particularly important for reaching traditionally underserved populations, including minority farmers and veterans.
While two projects offer technical assistance and other resources on a nationwide scale, the remaining 47 projects are focused on specific regions throughout the entire country. Certain states have a particularly large number of awards dedicated specifically to those states. California will benefit from the greatest number of projects, with seven in-state cooperative agreements. Arizona, Colorado, and Idaho will each benefit from five projects. South Dakota, Texas, Vermont, Montana, and Wisconsin each have four projects focused on their states. The geographic diversity of the top award-receiving states shows just how widespread grazing is across the country, and how technical assistance that is tailored to different parts of the United States will benefit livestock producers and the country’s natural resources through grazing conservation practices.
The National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT), an NSAC member organization, is an award recipient. Their project focuses on serving women and other underserved livestock farmers in the Gulf states region of the Southeast United States by providing resources on soil health, regenerative grazing, animal handling, health, equipment, and marketing.
Grassworks, another NSAC member organization, also received an award. As part of their project to provide educational programming on climate-smart livestock grazing, they intend to improve grazing management on an estimated 210,000 acres of existing pasture, increasing acreage of well-managed pasture by an estimated 68,000 acres, increasing the availability of technical assistance through TSP and agency staff training for 200 staff, and engaging Wisconsin’s 11 Tribal Nations in educational and technical assistance opportunities.
The Case for Continued Funding
Continuing to fund the Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative to support projects like these will be critical to ensure that all farmers and ranchers with grazing operations can access the resources they need to implement conservation on the land. This year, the President’s Budget Request for fiscal year 2024 did not include dedicated funding forGLCI, prompting NSAC and other grazing advocates to call on legislators to fund the program through the FY2024 appropriations cycle.
NSAC is not the only organization calling for greater funding and support for GLCI. Earlier this year, 122 farms and organizations signed a letter calling on Congressional leaders of the House and Senate Agriculture Appropriations subcommittees, including Senators Martin Heinrich (D-NM) and John Hoeven (R-ND), and Representatives Andy Harris (R-MD-01) and Sanford Bishop Jr. (D-GA-02), to fund GLCI at $30 million in FY24. These farms and organizations also span the entire country, further exemplifying the broad need and support for grazing conservation programs. Many of the signatories are from the four states represented by the chairs and ranking members, which shows direct constituent support for the programs.
Action on funding GLCI lies not only in Congressional appropriations, but also demands support from USDA itself. In a Senate Agriculture Appropriations Hearing in March 2023, Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), a longtime champion of sustainable grazers, asked USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack about the lack of funding for GLCI in the President’s Budget Request for FY2024. While the Secretary acknowledged the lack of funding, he also claimed that the new Partnership for Climate Smart Commodities offers opportunities for grazing technical assistance. However, upon review of the first round of Partnership for Climate Smart Commodities awards, only 4 out of 71 projects mention grazing, and of those four, only 2 mention any sort of education or technical assistance component of their project. Therefore, while there are other small opportunities for conservation grazing technical assistance at USDA, GLCI still represents the most direct way to fund technical assistance for livestock producers to implement conservation practices on grazing lands.
Support for grazing technical assistance is an issue with broad support beyond the agricultural community. A recent national public opinion poll by the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future found that 8 out of 10 respondents support incentivizing farmers and ranchers to implement more sustainable and resilient practices on their farms. Patti Truant Anderson, senior program officer at the Center for a Livable Future shared that “Americans resoundingly agree that our government should be supporting and prioritizing healthy and sustainable food production practices.”
Despite its many benefits, GLCI’s future is not guaranteed. Members of Congress who sit on the House and Senate Agriculture Committees and the House and Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittees have a real opportunity to answer the calls of farms and organizations around the country to fund GLCI, and to directly respond to their constituents and all American voters in supporting stronger conservation assistance for farmers and ranchers.
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