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Ava (6) and Chloe (9) McCaw checking fields for hail damage after a storm last August near Waitsburg.
Photo by John McCaw

WestBred

FARMER'S TOOLBOX

Cart(ful) of changes coming soon

NRCS uses webinar format to update Eastern Washington growers

June 2020
By Trista Crossley


In the year and a half since the 2018 Farm Bill passed, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has had their hands full implementing changes called for in the legislation. That transition is in the final stages, and last month, Washington growers got a chance to see what the agency has been working on.

“There are quite a few changes to each and every program, a lot of final tweaks,” said NRCS Washington State Conservationist Roylene Comes at Night. “We have new tools. The field offices have a new conservation planning system called Conservation Desktop. It’s a new system that is more computer friendly, more user friendly, more connected. The farm bill asked us to streamline in many ways. One way you will see is we are starting to transition towards one application, one conservation plan, one contract. We aren’t there yet, but we are going that way this year. That’s the biggest thing you will hear us talk about—this year is a transition year.”

The presentation, co-hosted by the Agricultural Marketing and Management Organization, was originally scheduled as a series of workshops, but thanks to COVID-19, was instead presented as an online webinar with growers calling in to listen. For those growers who missed the webinar, they can view the recording at https://youtu.be/ppCJYl-3Kak.

One of the biggest changes for NRCS is how applications are ranked and funded. The agency is transitioning to a new tool, the Conservation Assessment Ranking Tool (CART), that should streamline the process. Keith Griswold, assistant state conservationist for programs, explained that previous to CART, field staff had to answer the same set of questions for every fund pool a farmer applied to, and each fund pool had its own application. With CART, field staff answers one set of questions, and the program determines which fund pools the applicant is eligible for based on priority research concerns. Growers will have one contract, regardless of how many programs, practices or fund pools are involved. Griswold estimated that CART will eliminate 30,000 duplicate applications nationwide. It will also ensure that the same practice isn’t funded multiple times from different fund pools.

“There will be a point in time where you won’t even know where the funds are coming from,” Comes at Night added. “We will worry about that. You don’t have to. You could get multiple practices out of multiple fund pools.”

Another change growers will see is that instead of an entire conservation plan being funded, only individual practices might get funding. Comes at Night said that change gives NRCS more flexibility to target practices that will have the most effect in any situation or circumstance.

Changes to CSP and EQIP
Two popular NRCS programs, the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP), both had major changes under the 2018 Farm Bill.

CSP helps producers maintain and improve existing conservation systems and adopt additional conservation activities to address priority resources concerns. It is primarily for working lands and is the largest conservation program in the U.S. with 70 million acres of ag and forest land enrolled. Participants earn payments based on conservation performance—the higher the performance, the higher the payment. Some of the changes to CSP include:

• Eligible participants who choose not to renew their initial CSP contract cannot compete for a new contract for two years following expiration of their initial contract.

• Public land associated with other CSP-eligible land that is under the effective control of the applicant and is a working component of the producer’s ag operation is eligible for enrollment in CSP. In Washington state, that means a producer’s Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) land is now eligible for CSP. Comes at Night said NRCS is coordinating with DNR to figure out how the sign-up process will work.

• For farmstead and associated ag land, as long as the applicant meets or exceeds two resource concerns at the time of contract offer, they don’t need to schedule an additional activity on these land uses.

• For CSP renewal applications, an applicant must, by the end of the renewal contract period, agree to meet or exceed the stewardship threshold of at least two additional priority resource concerns on the ag operation or implement new or improve existing conservation activities to achieve higher levels of conservation performance for a minimum of two priority resource concerns met or exceeded in the initial contract.

• The $40,000 annual payment limitation was removed, however, a person or legal entity may not receive, directly or indirectly, payments that in the aggregate exceed $200,000 for all CSP contracts originally obligated during fiscal years 2019 through 2023.

Unfortunately, the application period for CSP renewal funding this fiscal year has already passed. The deadline was May 29.

EQIP is a voluntary program that provides funding and professional expertise for measures that protect natural resources while ensuring sustainable production on farms, ranches and working forest land. Payments are made to participants after conservation practices and activities identified in an EQIP plan of operations are implemented as prescribed by NRCS standards and specifications.

Changes to EQIP include:

• Entities such as state irrigation districts, groundwater management districts or similar entities that have responsibility related to water delivery or management can apply for EQIP funds for eligible lands.

• EQIP can be used to implement practices that help protect or improve source water for community water systems.

• Veterans who have been discharged in the most recent 10-year period are now eligible for increased payment rates (90 percent vs. 75 percent) and advance payments of up to 50 percent of the practice payment.

• Aggregate payments cannot exceed $450,000, and the payment limitation is not cumulative with prior farm bills.

Under the 2018 Farm Bill, all NRCS programs require Farm Service Agency (FSA) eligibility requirements to be met, including an AD1026; farm and tract eligibility; and adjusted gross income. Because of condensed application time frames, Washington state NRCS is requiring producers to have that eligibility at the time of application.

Comes at Night also addressed staffing issues at the state office, which was put on a priority hiring list earlier this year and assigned a new human resources specialist. Work has been done on all current vacancies with more than a dozen of them filled. Another dozen are in the selection process, and the rest are being advertised.

“We’ve got great movement,” Comes at Night said.