On August 31, the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) announced the availability of $65 million for the Conservation Innovation Grants (CIG) program. This funding is split into two separate opportunities: $50 million for CIG On Farm Trials and $15 million for CIG Classic. Half of the funding for the On Farm Trials competition was provided through the historic Inflation Reduction Act.
The deadline to apply for fiscal year (FY) 2023 funding for both the Classic CIG and On Farm Trials competitions is October 30, 2023, at 11:59 pm ET.
CIG Classic Basics
Part of the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), the CIG program is administered by NRCS and provides grant funding for the development, application, and demonstration of innovative conservation technologies and approaches. Through CIG, public and private grantees develop the tools, technologies, and strategies to support pioneering conservation efforts on working lands, as well as develop market-based solutions to resource challenges.
CIG projects are a critical tool in the effort to transfer novel conservation management systems, approaches, and technologies to farmers and ranchers. CIGs also help to share conservation research, findings, and best practices with NRCS (for use in technical manuals and guides,) as well as the private sector.
CIGs bring a wide range of partners to the table to support innovation. State, local, and tribal governments, non-governmental organizations, and individuals are all eligible to apply. Grantees must match 50 percent of the funds provided by the CIG award through non-federal contributions, which can either be in-kind or cash contributions. Grantees are also responsible for providing the necessary technical assistance; NRCS provides technical oversight for the project.
Successful applications must include conservation approaches or projects that directly involve EQIP-eligible farmers or ranchers. For this FY 2023 CIG application period, up to 10 percent of national funds are set aside for projects targeting Historically Underserved (HU) farmers or ranchers. Historically Underserved applicants may also waive the 50 percent non-federal match requirement.
The Classic CIG program has two components – national and state. This latest announcement is for the national component. It is up to each state office to choose to administer its own CIG competition in FY 2023, using a portion of its state EQIP funds. Most states have not yet announced funding availability for this year.
FY 2023 CIG Classic Priorities
Each year, NRCS identifies priority categories within CIG that can advance new or emerging high priority natural resource issues. This year’s announcement for Classic CIG included three priority areas: climate-smart agriculture with two subcategories; Combating Invasive Species; Conservation in Urban Agriculture Systems. Further details on each and subcategory descriptions are below.
- Forestry: Forests play a significant role in reducing carbon dioxide through carbon sequestration. Forests store carbon in trees, shrubs, and soil. Forest management and tree planting, included as part of an agroforestry system, support tree growth and increase carbon storage. This priority area will accept proposals for climate smart forestry and agroforestry in one of the following two areas: agroforestry and climate resilience.
- Habitat Conservation and Restoration for Wildlife and Invertebrates: This priority is focused on innovations to identify, improve, and expand habitats for wildlife and native beneficial invertebrate populations critical for ecosystems, agriculture, or other natural resource services. Native insect and invertebrate populations are plummeting with more than one million species under threat of extinction in the coming decades. This decline impacts entire ecosystems as well as producers who depend on crop pollination. Higher priority will be given to projects that have a large impact on invertebrate conservation or can leverage other resource opportunities that have stackable conservation benefits.
- Managing Agricultural Lands to Improve Local Water Quality: Traditional agricultural land management might not consider risks to receiving water bodies. Current agricultural nutrient management decisions are often based on field production goals and recommendations from universities, crop consultants, and agrichemical dealers. However, the impacts of field loss of nutrients on the receiving aquatic systems can vary greatly among different watersheds or groundwater recharge areas. Farm management of water and nutrients on a field-by-field bases, without attention to how nutrient loss affects the local receiving waterbody, creates a disconnect that could in some circumstances result in a negative outcome for local water resources (i.e., the receiving water body or groundwater recharge area). NRCS prioritizes projects that result in a system of conservation and management practices at the field level that (1) demonstrate water quality improvement or protections at the local water resource level and (2) evaluate agricultural economic and production impacts and benefits to individual producers.
- Energy Conservation: Agricultural producers typically rely on a range of energy sources. They use energy directly (e.g., electricity or propane) and indirectly (e.g., fertilizer or feed). Most producers can increase the energy efficiency of their equipment, systems, and management strategies. Many producers can capture or convert onsite renewable resources to meet some portion of their energy needs. Few producers have a clear path to evaluate their operation, develop a priority sequence that mixes energy efficiency and renewable resource improvements, and implement the necessary actions to move towards energy self-sufficiency. A robust analysis for a producer should increase the potential to deliver high resource and economic benefits with reduced life-cycle costs
The full funding announcement is available online through grants.gov and includes the details of each priority listed above.
Awards and Eligibility
Awards for national projects can range between $250,000 and $2 million and they can range from one to three years in duration. State, local, and tribal governments, non-governmental organizations, and individuals are all eligible to apply for CIGs. The 2018 Farm Bill expanded eligibility to allow community colleges carrying out demonstration projects on the college’s land to apply.
All grantees must match 50 percent of the total project funds through non-federal in-kind or cash contributions, excepting Historically Underserved applicants, who may request to reduce their match requirement to one third of the total project budget or to waive the match requirement entirely. To waive the entire match requirement, Historically Underserved applicants must provide a justification in the narrative of their proposal. Ten percent of total available funds will be reserved for Historically Underserved applicants.
Grantees are also responsible for providing the necessary technical assistance; NRCS provides technical oversight for the project. All proposed conservation approaches or technologies of the CIG application must involve EQIP-eligible farmers or ranchers.
How to Apply
The application deadline for FY 2023 Classic CIG funds is October 30, 2023, 11:59 pm EST. The Agency expects to select applications for funding by January 15, 2024, and execute awards by May 31, 2024. These dates are estimates and are subject to change. Applications must be submitted through www.grants.gov. Applicants will need to register for a gants.gov account, a System Award Management (SAM) account, and a Unique Entity Identifier (UEI) from SAM.gov.
The UEI is part of larger efforts to streamline federal grant making processes. Previously, applicants had to obtain a Dun and Bradstreet Data Universal Numbering System (DUNS) number and separately maintain a SAM registration. The UEI is assigned by SAM as part of the registration process and replaces the DUNS number.
Follow these links to do your required registrations, or find this information in the full award package posted to grants.gov.
CIG On-Farm Trials Basics
A subprogram within CIG, On-Farm Trials support the implementation of innovative approaches that have a positive conservation effect, but have not yet been widely adopted by producers. The 2018 Farm Bill mandates $25 million per year for on-farm trials. In addition, the IRA reserved $25 million of its EQIP allocation for CIG On-Farm Trials each year, with special instructions to fund feed management projects. Together, 2018 Farm Bill funding and IRA allocations account for the $50 million available in this competition.
On-Farm Trial grants are available for non-governmental organizations with experience working with farmers and ranchers, private entities whose primary business is related to agriculture, and non-federal government agencies. On-Farm Trials projects may be between three and five years in duration with awards ranging from $250,000 to $5,000,000.
Typically, successful applicants must provide a 25 percent match to federal funds awarded. For this competition, there is no cost sharing or matching requirement and there is no competitive advantage to applicants who voluntarily provide a match. NSAC applauds this long overdue change, as match requirements often function as a barrier to participation for historically underserved communities and smaller organizations doing truly innovative work to advance diversification on the landscape. Further, at least 10% of available funding will be awarded to Historically Underserved applicants.
FY23 CIG On-Farm Trial Priorities
Each year, NRCS identifies priority topics for On-Farm Trials. For 2023, applicants must address one of the four following priorities:
- Feeding Management and Enteric Methane Reduction Livestock: feeding management is critical to conservation of natural resources and climate solutions. In recent years, a tremendous amount of research and field work has elucidated the potential for some of the largest reductions of greenhouse gas emissions through advances in livestock feeding that reduce enteric methane emissions. Building on what is known, on-farm trials seek to fill in knowledge gaps.
- Irrigation Water Management Technologies: NRCS seeks On-Farm Trials proposals to evaluate innovative water management systems that enhance a producer’s ability to monitor irrigation needs effectively, manage irrigation practices efficiently, and increase water savings by using precision technologies. Innovative irrigation systems should focus on balancing producer needs with conservation benefits.
- Nutrient Management: applications that help producers achieve conservation benefits through efficient nutrient management directly addressing site risk for nutrient loss.
- Grazing Lands: NRCS seeks On-Farm Trials proposals to facilitate adopting new tools, technologies, and strategies that assist with improving and managing grazing lands in the United States at the ranch, farm, or urban interface scale. Innovative livestock grazing management practices used in conjunction with automated tools promote intensive grazing land management systems. These systems meet ecological and economic sustainability goals, such as maintaining and improving grazing lands and wildlife habitat, controlling invasive plants, and reducing large and small animal-predator (primarily carnivores) interactions on rangelands, pasturelands, and urban interface areas. They also optimize producer profitability and minimize risks.
- Soil Health Demonstration Trial: on-farm demonstrations of Soil Health Management Systems (SHMS) and production systems being transitioned to a SHMS. A SHMS is a collection of management practices that focus on increasing soil carbon levels and improving soil health by addressing the soil health management principles of: (1) minimizing disturbance, (2) maximizing soil cover, (3) maximizing biodiversity, and (4) maximizing presence of living roots. These proposals must indicate which of the four soil health management principles the prospective project would address. Applicants are strongly encouraged to address all four principles.
More details on these priorities is available in the full announcement on grants.gov.
Soil Health Demonstration Trials
While a priority for this competition, Soil Health Demonstration Trials are also a durable feature of the CIG program. As part of authorizing On-Farm Trials, the 2018 Farm Bill also created the Soil Health Demonstration Trial (SHD) component, which focuses exclusively on conservation practices and systems that enhance soil health and increase soil carbon.
Participants in the SHD component must use consistent soil health and soil carbon assessment protocols developed by NRCS. Projects are evaluated in terms of soil health, as well as by the economic outcomes generated as a result of the conservation practices. This option supports farmers in their efforts to build soil health, while simultaneously measuring, evaluating, and reporting on the outcomes associated with these projects.
National sub priorities for SHD in include:
- Designing SHMS for high disturbance production systems (e.g., potatoes, onions, sugar beets, and other root crops).
- Developing SHMS that include applying carbon amendments such as compost or biochar with evaluations of the effects on soil carbon and soil health.
- Improving cover crop management in regions with specific challenges (e.g., timing of planting and termination in water-limited regions or pest management in humid regions).
- Integrating greater diversity in production systems, such as managing soil health on grazing land, perennial vegetation in cropping systems, integrated crop-livestock systems, or other diversification.
- Designing SHMS with adapted nutrient management strategies for improved water quality (e.g., systems that address dissolved reactive phosphorus and other phosphorus in the soil in cold climates and nutrient-threatened watersheds).
- Addressing any of the previous sub priorities within the context of climate change adaptation, resilience, or soil carbon stock changes, with special attention toward collecting data to define and quantify outcomes. If climate mitigation is part of a SHD proposal, the methods for estimating entity-scale emissions should follow the USDA report titled Quantifying Greenhouse Gas Fluxes in Agriculture and Forestry: Methods for Entity-Scale Inventory.
Trials that compare SHMS to nearby or similar production systems that do not meet SHMS principles (e.g., high disturbance, low diversity, low cover) are highly desired for this round of funding. Applicants must develop production and climate specific SHMS templates that are regionally relevant for projects that successfully implement SHMS.
How to Apply
NRCS is accepting proposals for On-Farm Conservation Innovation Trials through October 30, 2023. Applicants can find the full description of this funding opportunity and apply online through grants.gov.
NRCS anticipates making selections by January 15, 2024 and expects to execute awards by May 31, 2024. These dates are projected and are subject to change.