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USDA programs support conservation in Iowa. They may be underfunded.
Report highlights low program acceptance rates across the country, although Iowa officials say state is in better shape
Ruth Rabinowitz started managing her father’s farmland in Mitchell, Madison, Clarke and Union counties a decade ago. Since then, she has coated her 550 acres in conservation practices: most tenants do not till, every field has a cover crop, and buffers border the fields.
The projects were made possible by state and federal funding for conservation practices — but that funding didn’t always come easy, 54-year-old Rabinowitz said.
“I used to apply for cover crops a lot and be turned down, which was just totally bewildering to me,” she said. “I just kept applying and applying, and pretty soon, I did get grants.”
Most recently, her application for a sediment control basin was rejected. “You just can't take it personally at all,” she said. “There's a lot of people out there wanting to do things on their farms, and there's X amount of dollars and X amount of time.”
The Conservation Stewardship Program and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program — commonly referred to as CSP and EQIP — are two tools in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s arsenal of conservation incentives for landowners. EQIP helps producers develop individual conservation projects for their properties, and CSP integrates more conservation practices into existing plans. Contracts come with resources for accepted participants.
These contracts can be hard to come by, according to a recent report from the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy — a think tank focusing on the intersection of food and economic systems.
According to the report, the USDA rejected three in four farmers who applied to EQIP and CSP last year. The institute is rallying for more federal funding for the programs and more local outreach for potential participants.
“I think more resources would go a long way in meeting this demand,” said Michael Happ, the report author and program associate for climate and rural communities at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. “Even without the additional funding, there just needs to be increased emphasis on (the programs).”
Mixed progress for Iowa
This is the second issue of the report — and it shows some promising growth. Both draw from public USDA data.
The previous report revealed a 31 percent acceptance rate for nationwide EQIP applicants and a 42 percent acceptance rate for CSP applicants between 2010 and 2020.
This month’s report found that 24.8 of CSP applicants were awarded contracts in 2022, which translates to around 3,000 more contracts than in 2020. Nationwide EQIP acceptance rates stayed relatively similar — around 25 percent — though the numbers of awarded contracts and applicants decreased.
“I do think that the funding should follow the demand, as well as making sure that all states have that culture of conservation, that people know about the programs and are going to their local office to ask about them,” Happ said.
For Iowa, progress made between the two reports is mixed.
In 2020, only 21 percent of Iowa’s 1,442 CSP applications and its 4,623 EQIP applications were awarded contracts — ranking the state’s acceptance rates 39th and 42nd in the country, respectively.
By 2022, accepted CSP application rates rose to 30 percent for the state’s 1,243 applicants, bumping Iowa’s ranking up to 35th nationwide. The average contract size was $44,041, and a total of $16.5 million was dispersed.
But for EQIP applicants, the rates and applicants declined slightly: 20 percent of the state’s 4,127 applications were awarded contracts. Iowa dropped to 46th in the country. A total of $31.5 million was distributed, with an average contract size of $38,359.
“Compared to a lot of other states, that's definitely in the top 10 of number of farmers going out there (applying),” Happ said. “When you have that many applying, and you only have a limited amount of money, your percentage is probably going to get lower.”
State data differs
While the report paints a more dire picture for EQIP and CSP acceptance rates in Iowa, state representatives of the Natural Resources Conservation Service — a federal agency within USDA — said the numbers don’t match what they have on file for 2022.
According to state records, the amount of accepted applications in 2022 is similar to what’s documented in the report. But the number of applicants — and thus, the application rates — are much different.
“We would love to see 1,243 applications, but we’re not,” said Sam Adams, assistant state conservationist of programs in the Iowa NRCS state office.
The numbers used in the report include every interested landowner who started applications with their NRCS agent, Happ said. A data contact at national NRCS confirmed his interpretation of the data.
“It is possible the Iowa NRCS … has subtracted applications deemed ineligible or deferred, but I do not subtract those,” Happ said about the discrepancy.
Adams called the report’s data a little misleading. For example, the numbers regarding Iowa’s CSP acceptance rates include both active contracts and new applications. Any contracts canceled by the applicant, ineligible applications, and deferred applications are not included in the NRCS’ data.
Adams estimated that Iowa NRCS funded around 90 percent of its CSP applications and around 50 percent of its EQIP applications.
Iowa is getting so much funding for CSP that excess projects are getting funded, said Iowa NRCS state public affairs specialist Jason Johnson.
Last year, the state received about $16 million for CSP contracts and about $30 million for EQIP contracts.
Additionally, it will receive nearly $5 million for CSP and nearly $3 million for EQIP specifically for climate-smart conservation practices — like cover crops and no till — from the Inflation Reduction Act. And that funding should continue to increase over the next five years.
“The problem really isn't that we're underfunding,” Johnson said. “The problem is we're not getting enough applications.”
Application do’s and don’t’s
Once EQIP and CSP applications are submitted to one of the 100 NRCS field offices in Iowa, it’s up to the field staffers to accept or reject applications and design the conservation projects.
According to Jason Johnson and Sam Adams of the Iowa NRCS state office, here are some factors that play into ranking EQIP and CSP applications:
• The location of your land matters. Certain watersheds are targeted for conservation partnerships, like the Cedar River watershed, Adams said.
• Good applications are diverse — that means they target several different natural resource concerns like pasture conditions, cover cropping and no-till implementation.
• If proposed projects could destroy cultural resources or harm endangered species, that’s a no-no for the NRCS.
Impacts of programs resonate
Jim O’Connell’s family farm in Palo dates back to the 1960s. Conservation practices have blossomed on 57-year-old O’Connell’s 1,000 acres. Every fall, he combines and plants cover crops. He created an 8-acre wetland on his property to catch and clean runoff from surrounding fields, which would flow into a creek that empties into the Cedar River.
It’s hard work — but it’s worth it, he said. His soil is more fertile; his crop yields are more consistent; he doesn’t spend as much money on fertilizer. And without support from EQIP contracts, he said the projects wouldn’t have become reality.
“Those programs helped get me started doing this because they covered a lot of the cost,” he said. “That extra little bit to help do another practice and on top of it to save soil and conservation, it helps a lot if we can get some funding for it.”
At a nearby 600-acre farm in Palo, Dan Voss stopped tilling some of the fields in 1988. A decade ago, he started planting cover crops with the help of EQIP and CSP. Now, at 67 years old, he’s working on adding edge-of-field practices — and he said he has witnessed the long-term financial and agricultural benefits of his conservation efforts.
While he said he probably would’ve planted cover crops without federal support, and he started implementing no-till long ago, Voss said he most likely wouldn’t have pursued edge-of-field practices without support from EQIP and CSP.
“Very few (farmers) really want to do things that harm the environment or the land. But unfortunately, some of the things we do … have the potential to do it,” he said. “I'd rather be part of the solution than part of the problem.”
Brittney J. Miller is the Energy & Environment Reporter for The Gazette and a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues.
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