While speaking at the American Farm Bureau Federation annual convention, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced a new partnership between the Natural Resources Conservation Service with Farmers For Soil Health, an initiative of the United Soybean Board, National Corn Growers Association and National Pork Board. The initiative has a goal of doubling the number of corn and soybean acres using cover crops to 30 million acres by 2030.
Farmers For Soil Health works to advance use of soil health practices – especially cover crops – on corn and soybean farms. Other partners include the National Association of Conservation Districts, Soil Health Institute and The Sustainability Consortium.
Vilsack says USDA is on the “cusp of providing significant help” as the agencies work to implement not a top-down, but a bottom-up approach in funding pilot and demonstration projects which encourage farmers to come together and establish climate-smart practices.
In speaking on the importance of creating new revenue streams from sustainability and carbon markets, Vilsack says it has to be voluntary, incentive-based and can’t be regulated, while also reflective of the diversity of U.S. agriculture. He also says it must offer support and help for early adopters and can’t penalize them.
Vilsack shares with the farmers in attendance that USDA looks to help farmers continue on their path of being great stewards and seize the opportunity in the climate challenge. “The department is focused on help and assistance and getting out the resources as quick as possible,” Vilsack says. “This department is truly dedicated to all of you."
Cover crop initiative
To complement the new soil health partnership, NRCS is investing $38 million through the new targeted Cover Crop Initiative in 11 states to help agricultural producers mitigate climate change through the widespread adoption of cover crops. States include Arkansas, California, Colorado, Georgia, Iowa, Michigan, Mississippi, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and South Dakota. States were selected for this initial pilot based on their demonstrated demand for additional support for the cover crop practice.
“We are pleased to see NRCS announce this new incentive program for cover crops,” says John Johnson, coordinator of Farmers for Soil Health. “Cover crops have great potential to improve soil health, improve water quality, sequester carbon and make our farms more resilient to severe climate events. We look forward to our partnership with NRCS, working to expand adoption of cover crop practices to help our farmers meet our sustainability goals.”
Sign-up dates will be determined at the state-level, and applications will be selected for funding by Feb. 11, 2022.
The initiative is aimed at improving soil health through a targeted, rapid and streamlined application and contract approval process. NRCS will continue to build on this framework and streamlined application process to support farmers and ranchers across the country, the agency says.
Cover crops offer agricultural producers a natural and inexpensive climate solution through their ability to sequester atmospheric carbon dioxide into soils. Cover crops can provide an accelerated, positive impact on natural resource concerns. In fiscal 2021, NRCS provided technical and financial assistance to help producers plant 2.3 million acres of cover crops through EQIP.
NRCS updated CSP to allow an agricultural producer to immediately re-enroll in the program following an unfunded application to renew an existing contract. Previously, if a CSP participant did not re-enroll the year their contract expired, they were ineligible for the program for two years.
This ineligibility was imposed on CSP participants even if their failure to sign a renewal contract was due to the unavailability of funds, which is beyond their control. USDA is now waiving this two-year ineligibility restriction for all CSP applications.
This year, producers renewed 2,600 CSP contracts covering 3.4 million acres. Applicants with unfunded fiscal 2022 CSP renewals will receive letters this month, notifying them they are automatically eligible to apply for future CSP funding opportunities, rather than needing to wait two years to reapply.