USDA Rolls out Climate-Smart Ag Funds

Duane Hovorka
Tom Vilsack - credit Christopher Paul, USDA

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack unveiled February 13, 2023 how the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will begin to invest the $19.5 billion Congress provided in 2022 for USDA conservation programs to help farmers and ranchers adopt climate-smart farming practices. Secretary Vilsack announced both the availability of some of the funding and the release of a Western Water Framework to guide USDA’s strategy to use conservation programs to address key challenges facing western states dealing with drought and related issues.

Over 11% of US greenhouse gas emissions that drive climate change come from the agriculture sector, and those emissions have been rising for several decades. Secretary Vilsack called the $19.5 billion provided by Congress “a once-in-a-generation investment in conservation on working lands.”

“We know that agriculture plays a critical role in the nation’s effort to address climate change. We’re using this funding to bolster our existing programs, maximize climate benefits, and foster other environmental benefits across the landscape,” Vilsack said.   

Vilsack said $500 million will be available for farmers through their state USDA offices to help them adopt climate-friendly farming practices and systems using the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). Farmers who are interested should contact their local or state USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service office.

$100 million will be available for restoration and long-term protection of grasslands and wetlands through the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program. This first year, USDA will hold a national signup for the funds, and will focus the available dollars on protecting grasslands threatened by development. It will also fund wetland restoration on a limited basis as it measures the climate benefits of restoring wetlands. The application for those funds is March 17.

USDA said an announcement will follow on opportunities for state, local and non-profit groups to apply for $250 million in funding through the Regional Conservation Partnership Program. The program will target USDA conservation dollars based on the commitments of state and local agencies and organizations to provide education, outreach, and additional funding to help farmers and ranchers.

Western Water Framework

Secretary Vilsack also announced the release of a new USDA Western Water and Working Lands Framework for Conservation Action, a roadmap for using USDA conservation programs to address some of the key challenges facing western states dealing with drought and related issues.

USDA identified six major challenges faced by western states dealing with water issues, such as forecasting water supply, sustaining productivity, protecting surface and groundwater supplies, and managing rangelands and forest. The Western Water Framework identifies 13 USDA strategies that can help address those challenges. USDA officials report that in the past few years, USDA has invested over $410 million in those targeted strategies.

Secretary Vilsack also announced that another $25 million will be made available through the EQIP water-smart initiative, a collaboration with the Bureau of Reclamation to coordinate federal investments to improve water conservation and drought resilience.

Water, Wildlife Benefits

USDA’s list of ‘climate-smart practices’ on farms and ranches includes many practices that are also ‘water smart’, ‘wildlife smart’ and ‘people smart’. For example, cover crops store carbon in the soil but they also reduce soil erosion, provide winter cover for wildlife, soak up nutrients that would otherwise pollute nearby streams, and reduce the farmer’s need for expensive inputs like fertilizer.

Farmers who plant windbreaks, buffer strips along streams, or filter strips in crop fields store carbon in the soil and also slow erosion and provide habitat for wildlife. Wildlife and soil both benefit from investments in fencing and water that will allow livestock producers to move their cattle or sheep to fresh pasture every day.

For more information on the Western Water Framework, the WaterSMART Initiative, or the new funding to help farmers and ranchers address climate change, contact your local USDA office. 

Top photo: Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack makes the announcement about how USDA will use conservation funds.

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