FAQ: USDA has opened a public comment period regarding a proposed new rule to improve the Environmental Quality Incentives Program or EQIP, one of the main soil and water conservation cost-sharing programs for farmers. What is this "interim final" rule? Why does USDA want to change EQIP?
Answer: USDA is publishing an "interim final" rule that outlines how the agency will improve the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. And yes, EQIP is indeed one of USDA's largest soil and water conservation programs. The interim final rule includes program changes authorized by Congress in the 2014 Farm Bill.
USDA has established a 60-day comment period for the rule. The rule is being published in the Federal Register and regulations.gov beginning Friday, December 12. Public comments can be submitted through regulations.gov or by mailing them. Comments are due by February 10, 2015. Full details are in the Federal Register notice.
"This interim final rule provides a roadmap to help streamline and simplify EQIP for farmers and ranchers," U.S. Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement on December 11. "We strongly encourage agricultural producers, private forest landowners and stakeholders to provide comments on our implementation processes. This feedback will help us improve our operation and deliver technical and financial assistance more efficiently to our nation's farmers, ranchers and forest landowners."
Changes are intended to simplify EQIP rules
The changes being proposed by this "interim final rule" are intended to simplify the EQIP regulations regarding conservation practice scheduling, payment limitations and other administrative actions. Vilsack says with these rule changes, USDA will enhance EQIP by streamlining the delivery of technical and financial assistance to ag producers and forest landowners nationwide.
Highlights of program changes that will be brought about with this new rule include the following:
Requires at least 5% of available EQIP funds be targeted for conservation practices that promote wildlife habitat;
Establishes EQIP as a contributing program for the Regional Conservation Partnership Program;
Increases the advanced payment from 30% to 50% for eligible historically underserved producers, including beginning farmers, to help purchase material or contract services;
Targets assistance to military veteran farmers and ranchers including eligibility for the new 50% advance payment and up to 90% of the cost to implement EQIP conservation practices;
Increases the payment limitation for EQIP from $300,000 to a maximum of $450,000 for benefits received during 2014-2018 and removes the option for a waiver to exceed payment limitations;
Eliminates the requirement for a program contract to remain in place for one year after the last practice has been implemented, allowing practices to be scheduled through the tenth year of a contract;
Includes an option to waive the irrigation history requirement under certain conditions;
Incorporates the Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program functions into EQIP.
This "interim final rule" follows publication of the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) interim final rule in Federal Register on November 5. USDA is also seeking comments for the CSP rule.
EQIP program is used by many farmers and ranchers
USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service or NRCS administers EQIP, a voluntary program that provides financial and technical assistance to eligible farmers, ranchers and forest landowners to help them address soil, water, air and related natural resource concerns on their lands in an environmentally beneficial and cost-effective manner. Resulting conservation and environmental benefits include improved water and air quality, reduced soil erosion and sedimentation, improved energy conservation, improved grazing and forest lands, and created or improved wildlife habitat on working farms, ranches and non-industrial forestlands.
EQIP has touched the lives of hundreds of thousands of ag producers and forest landowners since its launch in 1997. From that time through 2014, USDA has invested in 596,481 contracts for a total of nearly $11 billion on nearly 232 million acres nationwide. For more information about interim final rules for USDA NRCS's Farm Bill conservation programs, visit the EQIP Rule Page. For more information on technical and financial assistance available through EQIP, visit the EQIP Web page.