Ag Policy Blog
Chris Clayton DTN Ag Policy Editor

Tuesday 05/27/14

USDA Champions Regional Conservation Partnerships

I get to say that months ago I indicated the big conservation program everyone is going to hear coming out of the 2014 farm bill is RCPP --- Regional Conservation Partnership Program.

It sounds just like the name indicates. Under the partnerships, USDA signing agreements with conservation groups, states and businesses that also pony up added cost-share money for watershed-level initiatives that lead to reducing soil erosion, improving water quality and in some cases trying to improve water quantity. Prairie and wetland preservation also are part of the program.

You will hear the theme over and over about "targeting" conservation dollars to better ensure broader goals are achieved in these projects.

The overall Regional Conservation Partnership Program stems from USDA's efforts following the 2008 farm bill to invest heavily in the Chesapeake Bay, Great Lakes and upper Mississippi River basin.

USDA formally rolled out the RCPP on Tuesday, effectively alerting groups that it time to organize their coalitions and put together their funding proposals.

Eight regions of the county have been designated as Critical Conservation Areas: the California Bay Delta, Chesapeake Bay, Colorado River basin, Columbia River Basin, Great Lakes, Longleaf Pine Range in the Southeast, the Mississippi River basin and Prairie Grasslands in the plains. Those areas will receive special funding priority on a national basis of 35% of the total RCPP expenditures.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said USDA will send out grants of roughly $400 million over the next several months for the program. USDA will spend $1.2 billion on the regional partnerships over the life of the farm bill. Vilsack said the belief is that USDA can at least get an equal match from state, local and business contributions and technical assistance. "First and foremost, it's about improving soil quality and water quality," Vilsack said on a conferencee call Tuesday.

The Regional Conservation Partnerships have $100 million in designated funds, along with 7% of all Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) dollars and 7% of all Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) acres.

Besides the funding for the eight critical regions, 40% of the funds will be spread around nationally through competitive grants. Another 25% will go to individual state offices for them to choose their own partnerships to support. http://dld.bz/…

"The size of the project is not key. What is key is results," Vilsack said.

Farmers would enroll in a project once funding is secured. An effective partnership program would have a broad outreach effort to farmers, ranchers and landowners in any area designated for a special conservation initiative.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., credited USDA for the speed the department is implementing conservation programs. She and others were in Bay City, Mich., to talk about conservation and highlight the importance of these programs to helping clean up the Great Lakes. "These are very important tools for our farmers and ranchers. As we look to moving to risk-management tools rather than a subsidy approach, conservation is a very important part of that, as well as what it means for our larger communities and our watersheds."
Yet, conservation often remains under the red pen when it comes to annual budget appropriations. Stabenow last week sent a statement last week criticizing the House Appropriations Subcommittee for Agriculture's funding plan for USDA that Stabenow said would "gut conservation and energy programs" passed in the farm bill. Stabenow said the House subcommittee proposed to cut $400 million out of conservation programs for fiscal year 2015.

Stabenow said a larger, targeted approach of major projects can do more to improve water quality than an individual farm approach to clean up watersheds. Local input also will decide the priorities, she said. "We expect to see very significant improvements in our land and water conservation efforts as a result of what is a locally driven, broad-based partnership effort," she said.

Diane Holdorf, chief sustainability officer for Kellogg Co., based in Michigan, noted the company uses soft-white winter wheat grown in the Saginaw Bay area for cereals such as Mini-Wheats. Partnerships with groups such as the Nature Conservancy help Kellogg take a more regional approach to conservation measures to deal with the pressure agriculture is now placing on the Great Lakes, largely because of soil and nutrient runoff. "These type of regional-wide footprint opportunities help us make a much bigger difference than we could on any one single farm interaction," Holdorf said.

Sean McMahon, director of North American agricultural programs for the Nature Conservancy, said the RCPP and farm-bill language codifies the ability to invest in larger conservation projects even after Vilsack leaves office. McMahon said that philosophy ensures the "greatest bang for the buck" in conservations strategies.

The secretary also stressed that the program will be focused on achieving measurable results. "There is going to be accountability with this program. There is no question about it."

Yet, Vilsack also said the program will be looking for innovative approaches to conservation and some work that has never been tried before.

"We're looking forward to receiving a lot of competitive applications," Vilsack said.

Reflecting some of the interest, the National Association of Conservation Districts, Environmental Defense Fund and National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition all issued news releases supporting the Regional Conservation Partnerships Program and its intentions.

"Pre-Proposals" are due by July 14. Full grant proposals will be due Sept. 26. The first funding announcements will be made in late October.

More information on RCPP can be found at http://dld.bz/…

Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.clayton@dtn.com.

Follow me on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN

Posted at 4:10PM CDT 05/27/14 by Chris Clayton
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