March 21, 2014
The recently enacted 2014 Farm Bill includes a new Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP). RCPP allows farmers to sign-up for conservation technical and financial assistance through targeted regional or thematic projects that are organized by farm and conservation organizations, state agencies, conservation districts, or others with an interest in partnering with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service on conservation program delivery.
Many of the projects will likely focus on particular resource concerns of heightened concern in a given geographic region (e.g., nutrient pollution in impaired watersheds, wildlife habitat for threatened species, cover crop adoption to improve soil health and reduce runoff, downstream flood control through drainage management and wetland restoration, etc.) or a given set or type of farmers within a state or area interested in pursuing particular innovative conservation objectives (e.g, organic transition, young farmers adopting comprehensive conservation plans, a group of farmers pursuing carbon offset markets, etc.).
The program evolved directly out of two prior programs championed by the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition – the 2002 Farm Bill’s Partnership and Cooperation Program and the 2008 Farm Bill’s Cooperative Conservation Partnership Initiative (CCPI).
In the summer of 2011, NSAC proposed that the next farm bill merge CCPI with the Agricultural Water Enhancement Program. That proposal became the basis for the new RCPP, which also ultimately also consolidated the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Initiative (CBWI) and Great Lakes Conservation Initiative (GLCI) into the new program.
The Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) has recently updated its implementation timeline for the newly created Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP), which we outline below. But first, it would be helpful for readers to understand a bit about RCPP funding and funding allocations.
Funding and Program Allocations
Under the new farm bill, RCPP retains existing funding from CBWI and AWEP, both of which had permanent funding from the 2008 Farm Bill. In addition to this baseline, like its predecessor, CCPI, the program pulls funding from other existing conservation programs, referred to in the statute as “covered programs.” As with CCPI, the list of covered programs includes EQIP and CSP. Unlike CCPI, however, RCPP now also pulls funding from the conservation easement programs, an addition that NSAC championed.
The final farm bill dictates that 7 percent of funding for covered programs be reserved for RCPP, in addition to the $100 million per year baseline that is transferred from previous programs. When added together, NRCS will have the authority to spend upwards of $300 million in FY 2014.
However, due to timing and other constraints, the agency expects to spend far less for this first year of implementation. Actual spending levels over time will of course depend in large part upon how many qualified project proposals are submitted, but could be in the $300 million a year range.
Non-profit organizations, state and local governments, and other eligible entities will develop and submit proposals as part of a Request for Proposals (RFP) process. Partners will need to bring some non-federal funding or other resources into the partnership. Once project areas are determined, farmers apply to participate in a project through one or more of the covered programs.
The farm bill allocates 25 percent of total RCPP funding to State NRCS offices, 40 percent to NRCS national headquarters, and the remaining 35 percent for projects in Critical Conservation Areas. Money allocated to the States will be awarded to projects by the State office. NRCS headquarters will determine the balance of the awards.
The bill directs USDA to establish no more than eight Critical Conservation Areas, but leaves it to the Department to determine what those areas will be. It is expected that several of the eight areas will match existing NRCS national initiatives. It also would not be surprising if the Chesapeake Bay and Great Lakes are in the mix, given the consolidation of earlier programs for those water bodies that are now melded into RCPP.
NRCS has said it will designate Critical Conservation Areas in early April before releasing the fiscal year (FY) 2014 Request for Proposals (RFP). This will allow potential partners in those designated areas more time to prepare and apply.
NRCS expects to release the RFP sometime in May and enter into contracts by the end of FY 2014. Projects are expected to begin next spring, with initial farmer enrollment happening over the winter months.
Eligible Activities and Partnership Duties
The 2014 Farm Bill dictates that RCPP projects should help producers address a variety of natural resource concerns, including water quality (including nutrient management); water quantity conservation, restoration or enhancement; drought mitigation; flood prevention; water retention; air quality improvements; habitat conservation, restoration and enhancement; erosion control and sediment reduction; and forest restoration.
Partnership agreements will last for no more than five years, though there is an option for USDA to grant a one-year extension if such an extension is needed to meet program objectives.
Precise application requirements will not be known until the RFP is released. However, as part of the projects, partners will be expected to:
Prioritization of Applications
In ranking applications, USDA may give priority to applications that:
The 2014 Farm Bill also gives USDA authority to establish additional factors to use in prioritizing proposals.
Throughout the farm bill debate, NSAC recommended that partner organizations should have the option to request cooperative agreements with NRCS through the RCPP project proposal process in order to provide technical assistance expertise to the farmers involved in their projects.
It is our hope that the upcoming RFP allows for this streamlined path. The alternative would be that partners have to apply for a cooperative agreement separately and sequentially rather than being able to do so as part of the proposal process. Such a restriction is unnecessary and would mean that potential partners might withhold their proposals because they do not know whether they will be able to get support for technical assistance.
We will continue to monitor the program’s roll out over the next several months, and will report on the identity of the Critical Conservation Areas, program deadlines, and any new information included in the RFP.
Additionally, stay tuned for more information about an upcoming webinar to be held next month, on which NSAC and member organizations will discuss conservation program implementation in more detail.