By Sonia Howlett, VT Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets
The Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) from the United States Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service (USDA NRCS) is a grant program that provides funding and expert advice to farmers and forest managers to address natural resource concerns. First authorized in the 1996 Farm Bill, EQIP has been reauthorized and allocated additional funding in every Farm Bill since. Each farm in the United States is entitled to apply for a maximum of $450,000 from EQIP each Farm Bill, which are drafted every five years.
Conservation practices supported under EQIP range widely from in-field, edge-of-field, and forest practices all the way to production area construction projects. Many farms bundle together diverse practices under EQIP contracts. For example, EQIP might provide engineering assistance and funding to support the installation of practice infrastructure, and then provide funds and agronomic assistance to support rotational grazing and hedgerow planting.
Installing bigger construction projects, such as whole-farmyard waste storage and manure application systems, is one of the most effective ways for farms to decrease nutrient runoff and is also often a necessary investment to keep up with state and federal water quality regulations. However, these projects can run at a really high cost and many farms have felt that the $450,000 cap is limiting their ability to support these useful but not particularly profitable improvements.
Some of these farms come to the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets (AAFM) for the Best Management Practice (BMP) program to help make up the difference between the cost of large construction projects and the amount that EQIP can fund. That extra assistance can really help construction projects be more accessible, but the BMP program is itself capped at $200,000 or the farm’s EQIP grant amount, whichever is lower. For the largest of projects, that still may not be enough.
So, what can farms do when project costs are high and grant funds are limited by the Farm Bill? According to AAFM engineer Rob Achilles, the answer is to break the project up into smaller parts and to plan ahead to spread project investments over multiple Farm Bills.
“Some farms in Vermont, the most proactive farms, are maxing out EQIP with every Farm Bill and chipping away at those bigger projects,” Rob shared. “That’s the way to do it. If you keep ahead of your need for more manure storage, and keep ahead of the regulations, you don’t need to make that investment all at once – you can spread it out and maximize the contribution you can get from NRCS and the State.”
Now, Rob points out, is a great time to think ahead to start spreading out costs on large-scale construction projects. The EQIP deadline on November 18th of this year represents the last year of funding under the 2018 Farm Bill but can support projects over the next 1-5 years. After that deadline has passed, future EQIP funding pools will be supported by the 2023 Farm Bill, meaning that the $450,000 cap will reset. So hypothetically if you successfully applied now for $450,000 towards part of a project and applied in 2024 or 2025 for $450,000 towards another part of the same project, you could end up with $900,000 towards that project as a whole, which would make a big difference in getting that conservation on the ground.
If you have major conservation needs on your farm and haven’t yet maxed out EQIP, “don’t leave that free money on the table,” Rob advised. Apply to EQIP before November 18th, 2022 to be considered for this last year of funds through the 2018 Farm Bill, before your $450,000 cap resets next year.
To apply to EQIP or to understand where you stand in proximity to your current cap limit, contact your local USDA NRCS service center (found at https://www.farmers.gov/working-with-us/service-center-locator). For more information on the state BMP program, to apply, or for advice from an engineer, visit https://agriculture.vermont.gov/bmp
IMAGE: New waste storage infrastructure can be costly. If farms think ahead and break up their projects across multiple Farm Bills, they can maximize the federal and state assistance they are eligible for.