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USDA Conservation Programs: Nationally Valued and Oversubscribed

Farmers, ranchers, and forest landowners in every region of the country engage with Department of Agriculture (USDA) conservation programs to support a broad range of beneficial conservation practices to improve their working lands. These programs are locally driven, voluntary, and offer financial incentives directly to producers for practices like restoring farmland damaged by natural disasters and emergency water conservation in severe drought.

It’s no secret that these programs are popular—thousands of farmers, ranchers, forest landowners, and other private landowners benefit from these programs every year. But the extent to which demand exceeds supply is eye opening. In Montana, for example, only one producer receives funding for every three who apply, according to Montana Farmers Union President Walter Schweitzer. The technical and financial assistance provided by these programs can help increase a producers’ yield and strengthen daily operations, while also improving soil health and other natural resources.

Four primary USDA conservation programs include:

Producers across every state make use of USDA’s conservation programs. Across midwestern states, cover crops, crop rotation, nutrient management, wildlife habitat management, and prescribed grazing are among the most common practices sought out for EQIP funding. In fiscal year 2021, Iowa received the highest number of contracts while Texas had the greatest number of acres enrolled, according to a report by the Congressional Research Service. The maps below show the top recipients for FY2021 across the four programs by number of contracts, funds awarded, and total number of acres covered.

Data source: Agricultural Conservation: A Guide to Programs (Congressional Research Service)

The essential nature of these programs can be seen in the sheer number of applicants each year. In 2021, 2.3 million acres were submitted for consideration by producers to CRP. EQIP and CSP received nearly 115,000 combined applications in the same year but were only able to support a third of these applicants. These programs are routinely oversubscribed and have more applicants than available funding, leaving many producers without critical support. The table below shows the number of applicants, number of applicants accepted, and acceptance rate for each program.

An additional 29,116 EQIP applications or 26% of total applicants were deemed to be valid but were not funded, with the highest concentration of these applications in Mississippi, Arkansas, and Texas.

USDA’s conservation programs are an important asset for farmers, ranchers, and forest landowners across the country. Conservation practices covered by these programs deliver valuable co-benefits by improving air and water quality, increasing resilience of working lands, and providing an additional revenue stream for producers. But because many of these programs are heavily oversubscribed, we are missing an opportunity to support producers across the country. The Bipartisan Policy Center’s Farm and Forest Natural Carbon Solutions Task Force, bringing together key stakeholders across the agriculture and forestry sectors, recommended sustained support for these key voluntary conservation programs in its 2022 report. BPC continues to prioritize maintaining the core structure of these and other Title II conservation programs in the upcoming Farm Bill.

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