Whether we produce food, or just enjoy eating it, we all benefit from farming practices that keep our water, air, and soil clean and healthy. The path to and challenges of sustainability, however, varies greatly from region to region. In order to target resources toward the areas of greatest need and impact in each region, the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) helps farmers tackle the unique conservation challenges of their regions by partnering with state agencies and non-governmental organizations on projects that provide financial and technical assistance for on-farm conservation activities. Recently, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced the 2018 RCPP awarded projects, several of which include members of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC).
The 2014 Farm Bill created RCPP by consolidating four previously separate programs: the Cooperative Conservation Partnership Initiative, a program developed and championed by NSAC, plus the Agricultural Water Enhancement Program, Chesapeake Bay Watershed Initiative, and Great Lakes Basin Program. RCPP is administered by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).
$220 Million Invested in 2018 RCCP Projects
The 2018 awards totaled $220 million for 91 RCPP projects. Funding was awarded for projects in three categories prescribed by the farm bill: Critical Conservation Areas (CCAs), nationally identified priorities, and state-based priorities.
RCPP unique amongst NRCS conservation programs because farmers and ranchers access the program through partner entities (e.g., producer associations, state or local governments, Indian tribes, institutions of higher education, nongovernmental organizations), instead of applying directly to USDA as an individual producer. Once NRCS selects proposals from aforementioned partner entities, farmers and ranchers can then apply through NRCS’ “covered programs” to participate in an RCPP project. Covered programs include: the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP), and Healthy Forests Reserve Program.
NSAC congratulates all RCPP award recipients on their projects, and we extend particular congratulations to NSAC members who received awards or will be part of projects awarded in FY 2018:
- Maine Farmland Trust (MFT) received two RCPP awards: Conserving Farmland and Marsh Habitat in Maine ($1,440,000), which was selected through the national pool, and Little Kennebec Bay Farmland Protection ($600,000), which was selected as a state priority. Through their national RCPP project, MFT will work to protect high value marsh habitat contained within Maine farms. They will utilize the Agricultural Land Easement (ALE) component of ACEP, as well as EQIP-funded Conservation Activity Plans to identify resource concerns and the conservation practices that could be implemented to support the health of marsh habitat. For the Little Kennebec Bay Project, MFT will work to place conservation easements on properties that landowners are eager to protect, helping to address food insecurity in the region.
- Land for Good is a partner to two RCPP projects awarded in New England: The Upper Valley Farmland Protection Initiative and Saving Farmland in the Lower Merrimack Watershed. In both projects, Land for Good will provide one-on-one farm succession advising and related training with/for transitioning farmers. The Upper Valley Farmland Protection Initiative will prioritize protection in three areas: farms located near impaired waters, where there are low percentages of protected farms, and where historically underserved producers lack resources for improvements. In the Lower Merrimack Watershed, the project will work to protect 400 acres of critical farmland in an area where rapid urbanization, high land values, and aging landowners have rendered these farms vulnerable to conversion; conversion of these farms would result in corresponding losses for water quality and habitat.
- Illinois Stewardship Alliance is working with the Otter Lake Source Water Protection RCPP grantees in Illinois on outreach education for the Otter Lake Water Commission and helping to develop a farmer/landowner watershed committee. The project is critical because nutrient-induced algae blooms have had a significant impact on the lake, which supplies water for six towns, two villages, and two rural water districts. The RCPP project will protect the lake by reducing excessive levels of sedimentation, phosphorus, and nutrient loading. A highly detailed watershed plan was just completed in the area, enabling conservation practices to be micro-targeted to areas of greatest resource need. Additionally, farmers will receive information regarding financial benefits of conservation alternatives.
The full list of RCPP projects awarded in FY 2018 is available online here.
NRCS has not yet released the FY 2019 Application for Program Funding (APF), but announcements have historically been made in late fall or early spring. This extended application period is in place to provide time for a pre-proposal round, from which NRCS invites back applicants to submit a full proposal. We continue to urge the agency to act swiftly in releasing the FY 2019 application so that partners have ample time to consider and put together a pre-proposal.
Efforts to Advance RCPP in the 2018 Farm Bill
The next farm bill presents an important opportunity to build upon and further improve the ability of RCPP partnerships to address critical resource concerns. Several members of Congress have already introduced marker bills in order to enhance this program in the 2018 Farm Bill. In the Senate, Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA) introduced the Regional Conservation Partnership Program Improvement Act of 2017 (S. 1966), and Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) has introduced the bipartisan Chesapeake Bay Farm Bill Enhancements Act of 2017 (S. 2139). In the House, Representative Bobby Scott (D-VA) introduced a bipartisan companion bill to Senator Van Hollen’s bill – H.R. 4220.
NSAC applauds these members for recognizing the value in targeted conservation partnerships, and working to advance reforms and improvements to RCPP in the next farm bill. We have also set our own priorities and farm bill recommendations for the program, which are based on extensive outreach to and collaboration with our 120+ member organizations and their constituents.
Priorities and Recommendations from the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition
- Allow organizations to request funding for outreach and technical assistance: NRCS currently discourages the use of RCPP dollars to assist project partners with conducting technical assistance and outreach to farmers and ranchers who are or could be participating in their projects. However, many local farm and conservation organizations that have smaller operating budgets but significant technical expertise and farmer relationships could use this support to develop and implement a successful RCPP project. For these organizations, a small amount of NRCS funding to help conduct outreach and technical assistance to farmers and ranchers could make the difference between applying for the program or not.
- Strengthen the program’s focus on conservation outcomes: RCPP includes a focus on identifying and tracking conservation outcomes that result from the collaborative projects. This focus allows RCPP to take a landscape approach to addressing key resource concerns, including: water quality, soil health, soil carbon sequestration, and wildlife habitat. Thanks to this regional approach, RCPP has enormous potential to enhance the resilience of agriculture systems. Partners are currently required to conduct an assessment of the project’s effects, but this guidance lacks the specificity to ensure the focus is on critical resource concerns, such as nutrient loading or soil erosion. By reporting these measured outcomes, NRCS and the RCPP project leaders will be demonstrating to the public, Congress, farmers, and the conservation community that the voluntary conservation approach works.
- Ensure any added program flexibility retains strong conservation standards and payment limits: Any modifications to provide additional flexibility to RCPP in the 2018 Farm Bill should ensure that projects and practices continue to meet NRCS quality criteria standard requirements and stewardship objectives. If flexibility is given to remove the structure of the covered programs, any new contracts should retain fair and effective payment limitations for participants.
- Increase the funding allocation for projects chosen at the state-level: NRCS National Headquarters makes most decisions about RCPP project awards. Given that RCPP is intended to be a targeted, regional program, however, states should have more autonomy in determining which proposals receive funding. The next farm bill should modify the breakdown of how RCPP dollars are awarded by adjusting the current formula from 25 percent to states, 40 percent to national criteria, and 35 percent for CCAs, to 55 percent administered by the states, 10 percent for national, and 35 percent for CCAs.
- Protect the availability of funding through the “covered programs” outside RCPP: RCPP currently pulls most of its funding from EQIP, CSP, and ACEP, programs that are continuously oversubscribed for farmers participating outside of RCPP. Regardless of whether these programs continue to be utilized directly within RCPP, NRCS should ensure that the general breakdown of projects retains the breakdown of the covered projects. For example, funding pulled from CSP should either go directly to CSP contracts, or they should at least still retain basic CSP characteristics, i.e., projects should embody CSP’s unique comprehensive conservation and high conservation standards approach. The next farm bill should also continue to ensure that any funds pulled from the covered programs for RCPP that for any reason go unused be returned to those underlying programs.
As the farm bill debate moves forward, NSAC will continue to work with Congress and our member organizations to advance key conservation reforms, and will keep our supporters updated on progress and opportunities to advance these goals. Stay tuned!