PORTLAND — Farmers and ranchers have until Feb. 18 to provide feedback on proposed changes to one of the USDA's most widely used conservation programs.
The Environmental Quality Incentives Program, or EQIP, awards cost-sharing contracts with agricultural producers to help pay for things like improving irrigation efficiency, restoring pasture or managing woodlands for wildfire resilience.
EQIP is administered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service. It was first authorized in 1996, and renewed again under the 2018 Farm Bill.
NRCS posted a draft assessment of the revised program rules in the Federal Register on Dec. 17. The agency is considering several changes to EQIP that officials say will adapt to new resource threats — such as greater weather volatility and drought — while making funding more available to beginning farmers.
Jay Gibbs, acting state conservationist for the NRCS in Oregon, described EQIP as the agency's bread-and-butter initiative for healthy working lands.
"I view farmers as our first conservationists," Gibbs said. "There is a huge benefit of conservation to society as a whole. We as Oregonians value clean air, clean water and open spaces, and landowners provide those benefits to society."
Under the 2014 Farm Bill, NRCS awarded 2,452 contracts with landowners through EQIP totaling $49.6 million and 1.2 million acres.
Projects might include converting fields from flood irrigation to sprinklers to save water; building cross fences in livestock pastures to allow for better grazing and animal distribution; planting cover crops to prevent soil erosion; or building seasonal high tunnels, similar to greenhouses, that allow farmers to extend their growing season.
"It can be very costly to do some of these things," Gibbs said. "This helps offset the cost of that."
Gibbs said the interim EQIP rule contains language specifically targeting new and beginning farmers. With the average Oregon farmer now 60 years old, an estimated 10.5 million acres of farmland is expected to change hands over the next 20 years.
NRCS is required under the interim rule to provide an advance payment option for beginning farmers — as well as other historically under-served producers — while raising the cost share rate for buying materials from "not more than" to "at least" 50%.
The interim rule also calls for expanding EQIP to include "new or expected resource concerns, adapting to, and mitigating against, increasing weather volatility, and addressing drought resiliency measures."
"The concerns we're seeing here today are far different from what they were 20 years ago," Gibbs said. "Every Farm Bill, the agency has an opportunity to make some changes to the program."
EQIP applications are accepted on a continuous basis, and evaluated based on priority resource concerns. NRCS will make available $1.2 billion nationwide for producers in fiscal year 2020.