The ink might be dry on USDA's Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), but that ink might very well be invisible. EQIP, as reauthorized in the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002, is intended to give farmers and ranchers financial and technical help in developing conservation practices on eligible land. But funding authorization and coordination between the federal government and the states is bogging down the program.

Under EQIP, the government will pay up to 75% of the costs of producer-initiated conservation practices. Administered through the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), EQIP funding comes from the Commodity Credit Corp.

The land management practices covered include nutrient management, manure management, integrated pest management, irrigation water management and wildlife habitat management.

“Limited resource” producers and beginning farmers and ranchers may be eligible for cost-shares up to 90%. The practices are subject to NRCS technical standards adapted for local conditions. Local conservation districts are the final screen in approving the plans.

But the changing dynamics of EQIP have producers wondering how the revamped program will be put to work on the ground.

“NRCS is struggling with how to manage the program,” says Myra Hyde, Washington, D.C. She's staff director for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association's environmental management committee. States now have more say in how the program will implemented. But, Hyde says, a myriad of national standards still must be adhered to.

“It's a Catch-22 situation,” she says. “The new EQIP language gives states more flexibility in granting funding, but the state technical committees really don't know how far they can go in approving plans — or what their guidelines are in establishing conservation priorities.”

Presently, Hyde says most states are sticking with what they've done in the past. “Therefore, with their previous ranking and indexing systems, some producers aren't necessarily getting the money that's really intended for them.”

EQIP offers contracts with a minimum term of one year after implementation of the last scheduled practice and a maximum term of 10 years. These contracts provide incentive payments and cost-share payments for implementing conservation practices.

“Total cost-share and incentive payments are limited to $450,000/individual over the period of the 2002 farm bill,” Hyde explains, “regardless of the number of farms or contracts.” Payments may also be used to develop a comprehensive nutrient management plan (CNMP).

Plans must be approved by the local conservation district. And as Hyde notes, practices are subject to NRCS technical standards adapted for local conditions.

Other EQIP provisions allow for additional funding specifically to:

  • Promote groundwater and surface water conservation activities to improve irrigation systems.

  • Convert to the production of less water-intensive agricultural commodities.

  • Improve water storage through measures such as water banking and groundwater recharge.

  • Institute other measures that improve groundwater and surface water conservation, as determined by the USDA Secretary.

Assistance to a producer may be provided only to facilitate a conservation measure that results in a net savings in groundwater or surface water resources in the agricultural operation of the producer. This provision is funded through 2007.

But before producers can even begin to think that far ahead, USDA needs to get EQIP squared away for 2003. If and when the wrinkles can be ironed out of EQIP, applications will be evaluated throughout the year.

NCBA is working on both the funding issue for 2003 and on clearing up confusion over who has the final say in how allocated money gets spent.

“We're working hard with the agency to get past the point where producers are being told one thing by the feds and another thing by the state,” concludes Hyde.

For more information on EQIP, visit http://hill.beef.org/farmbill.

Conservation Innovation Grants

EQIP funds may be awarded to government or non-government organizations or individuals who leverage federal funds to implement innovative approaches to conservation. Grant amounts may not exceed 50% of the total cost of each project.

These Conservation Innovation Grants provide the opportunity for USDA to work with other public and private entities to accelerate technology transfer and implementation of promising technologies to address agricultural-related natural resource problems. The grants are intended to give producers facing the most difficult challenges more options in enhancing the environment and meeting federal, state and local regulations.