Thursday, April 3, 2014

Implementing the New Farm Bill - What's Up Next for Conservation

The Agricultural Act of 2014 (commonly known as the “farm bill”) was enacted on February 7, 2014, establishing and reauthorizing, respectively, a suite of new and existing conservation programs that benefit both agricultural producers and the environment. USDA has tallied 430-plus actions that it believes it needs to take in order to implement all of the measures called for in the new farm bill (and has documented these steps in an internal, 35-page implementation framework). Based on a series of meetings over the past month with U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Tom Vilsack and USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Chief Jason Weller, this post summarizes USDA’s plans for implementing key conservation initiatives under the provisions of the 2014 farm bill.

Implementation Priorities
Secretary Vilsack and NRCS Chief Weller have both stressed the “all hands on deck” and “hit the ground running” approaches that they are taking to expedite the numerous steps to implement the farm bill as quickly as possible. New farm bill measures that are particular priorities for the NRCS include:
  1. Getting assistance out as soon as possible this spring. Especially important to USDA is the task of getting disaster assistance out as soon as possible to farmers, ranchers and landowners suffering from the effects of past natural disasters.  One specific group of people awaiting disaster relief are Great Plains ranchers who lost cattle during a particularly potent and unusually early winter blizzard in 2014. NRCS intends to provide disaster assistance (and assistance under a variety of conservation programs)  under existing rules whenever they can (i.e., promulgated under previous versions of the farm bill), as long as those rules “comport” with the new law.  At the same time, USDA intends to follow a parallel track of promulgating new rules through the regular rulemaking process. 
  2. Moving from 23 to 13 conservation programs will provide NRCS the opportunity to (a) do some program and resource “trimming” in the name of gaining efficiency, and (b) make its conservation programs as simple and user-friendly as possible for both the NRCS implementers and the program users (i.e., partners, farmers, ranchers and landowners).
  3. The new Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) is one of NRCS’s flagship 2014 farm bill programs, and the USDA is moving to ensure that the program is up and running quickly. NRCS believes that the RCPP will be “bigger and bolder” than past, similar programs, putting partners and partnerships “in the driver’s seat.” The agency’s plan is to draw from experiences gained while implementing the now-eliminated Cooperative Conservation Partnership
    NRCS Landscape Conservation Initiatives
    (click to enlarge)
    Initiative (CCPI). The CCPI, along with the NRCS’s Chesapeake Bay watershed Initiative and Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, are being merged into the RCPP under provisions of the farm bill. NRCS’s objective is to have RCPP agreements with project partners in place by the end of the 2014 fiscal year, and to have projects begin in the field next spring (2015). That schedule would require that Requests for Proposals (or RFPs) be published by the NRCS by the end of May, 2014. Beyond the above-mentioned Chesapeake Bay watershed and Great Lakes basin programs, NRCS intends that its other existing landscape conservation initiatives, such as the Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative (MRBI), will fit seamlessly with the new RCPP, complimenting, rather than competing with, the new RCPP provisions and projects. NRCS Chief Weller envisions that “one or two” of the existing landscapes could be incorporated into one or more of the (up to) eight critical conservation areas of the RCPP (35 percent of the funds and acres to RCPP projects is to be targeted toward critical conservation areas designated under section 1271(F) of the farm bill). Those critical conservation areas will be named by USDA this spring.
  4. The 10 million-acre-per-year Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) enrollment will be implemented with only a few minor changes to the existing CSP rules. NRCS is planning on having this year’s new enrollments for the program in place by the late summer, 2014.
  5. The $250 million-per-year authorized for the Small Watershed Rehabilitation Program is also a high NRCS priority, and the program’s funding will be targeted toward projects that rehabilitate unsafe dams in small watersheds nearing the end of their 50-year design life. 
  6. NRCS will work with USDA’s Risk Management Agency (RMA) and Farm Service Agency (FSA) to put conservation compliance regulations in place, moving the rulemaking process along quickly.  While that process may take some time, NRCS is stressing to farmers and landowners that the effective date for being in compliance with this provision of the farm bill is the date of the farm bill enactment (not when the rulemaking is completed).  The conservation compliance provision of the farm bill requires (a) that all persons who produce agriculture commodities must protect all cropland classified as being highly erodible from excessive erosion, and (b) that producers must certify that they have not produced crops on wetlands converted after December 23, 1985, and did not convert a wetland after November 28, 1990, to make agricultural production possible.  Otherwise, the producers risk losing eligibility for USDA programs, including crop insurance premium subsidies.  NRCS does not believe that the 2014 farm bill conservation compliance provisions will result in significant changes to the way it manages conservation compliance. 
Other Key Milestones
Here are some additional 2014 farm bill implementation milestones that USDA has set:
  • Agricultural land easement obligations under the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program met: fall 2014 (with farmer applications received in May). The Agriculture Conservation Easement Program provides financial and technical assistance to Indian tribes, state and local governments and non-governmental organizations to protect working agricultural lands and limit non-agricultural uses of the land.  Under the Wetlands Reserve Easements component of ACEP, NRCS helps to restore, protect and enhance enrolled wetlands. 
  • Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program obligations met: summer 2014.  The Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program is a competitive grants program that helps state governments and Indian tribes increase public access to private lands for wildlife-dependent recreation, such as hunting, fishing or hiking.  
  • New provisions for land “transitioning” out of the Conservation Reserve Program in place: winter of 2014-15.  The Conservation Reserve Program is a land conservation program administered by the FSA. In exchange for a yearly rental payment, farmers enrolled in the program agree to remove environmentally sensitive land from agricultural production, and to plant species that will improve environmental health and quality.
  • Defining (pursuant to Section 1604 of the farm bill) what an “actively engaged” producer means for the purposes of participating in the Price Loss Coverage or Agricultural Risk Coverage programs: end of 2014.  The Price Loss Coverage or Agricultural Risk Coverage programs constitute part of the agricultural “safety net” provided to farmers under the farm bill: risk management options that offer protection when the farmer suffers significant economic losses.
  • Interim rule on native sod (known as the “sodsaver” provision of the farm bill) in place: summer 2014.  Under the new sodsaver provision of the farm bill, producers who choose to till native sod would see their crop insurance premium subsidies reduced and their available yield or revenue guarantee limited during the first four years of crop production on native sod that had not been previously tilled. The sodsaver provision applies only to native sod in Minnesota, Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, and Nebraska.
Because the new Farm Bill reduces the number of conservation programs from 23 to 13, some older programs have either been effectively de-authorized, or their provisions have been included (along with those of other “old” programs), into new over-arching farm bill programs, such as the RCPP and ACEP mentioned above.  Specifically, the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP), and Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program (FRPP), and the easement portion of the Grassland Reserve Program (GRP) are consolidated into the ACEP.  The Agricultural Water Enhancement Program, Chesapeake Bay Watershed Program, Cooperative Conservation Partnership Initiative, and Great Lakes Basin Program are consolidated into the RCPP.  And the Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program (WHIP) is merged into the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP).

During the transition from the previous to the new farm bill program regime, existing contracts with USDA executed for now-unauthorized programs (such as the GRP, WRP and FRPP) will remain in place and be valid through their respective contract durations. Applications being received now for WRP projects will be accepted and reviewed by the NRCS under the existing (2008 farm bill) rules, and will be rolled into the new Agricultural Conservation Easement Program’s Wetlands Reserve component, when the new rules pertaining to that new program are promulgated.

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