May 21, 2024

Conservation funding opportunities soar

Kris Reynolds

URBANA, Ill. — The alphabet soup of diverse conservation funding for farmers was the focus of one of the breakout sessions during the recent Soybean Summit.

“I’ve worked in conservation agriculture for over 20 years, and there have really never been more public and private conservation funding opportunities than what exists today and what will exist over the next several years,” said Kris Reynolds, American Farmland Trust Midwest regional director and a fifth-generation farmer in Montgomery County in central Illinois.

Partners for Conservation is an Illinois Department of Agriculture program administered by local Soil and Water Conservation Districts. The program provides different cost-share incentives for soil health practices and structural practices.

“The program is near and dear to my heart, having spent almost 16 years working for the SWCD in my county,” said Reynolds at the Illinois Soybean Association event.

“One of the changes that’s been made since my time with the district is they now fund cover crops at $40 per acre. It’s one of the highest payment rates for cover crops and these are for new cover crops only.

“It’s a good program, allows you to do multiple practices, provide you with an opportunity to try that practice out for just one year if you’d like to, which differs from some of the other programs.

“There’s also funding for structural practices like water sediment control basins, terraces, and other in-field management practices like no-till and nutrient management.”

Climate-Smart

The U.S. Department of Agriculture started the Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities program last year that’s committed to supporting a diverse range of farmers.

This effort is aimed to expand markets for America’s climate-smart commodities, leverage the greenhouse gas benefits of climate-smart commodity production and provide direct meaningful benefits to production agriculture.

USDA is investing more than $3.1 billion in over 141 projects across the United States. There are 25 of those 141 projects that are in Illinois and 11 of which support soybean production.

Outcomes Fund

Another new program, the Soil and Water Outcomes Fund, was expanded into Illinois in 2023 and provides payment to farmers for environmental outcomes that result from implementing conservation practices.

USDA and several private companies, including PepsiCo, Cargill, Renewable Energy Group, Ingredion, Target, JBS and Bartlett, are partnering with the SWOF to encourage farmer adoption of conservation practices that generate verifiable gains in carbon reduction and water quality. The Illinois Soybean Association is also a partner in the program.

In 2022, SWOF provided an average of $34 per acre to farmers who transitioned to on-farm conservation practices that yield outcomes like carbon sequestration and water quality improvements.

New conservation practices that qualify could include tillage reductions, implementing cover crops and extending crop rotations. When implemented with another one of these practices, fertilization management can also yield environmental outcomes.

Regenerative

ADM launched its re:generations regenerative agriculture program in 2022.

“It’s a program that AFT works closely on. This year, we were successful in enrolling 225,000 acres of cover crops into their program that provides farmers with a one-year contract for applying those practices on their land,” Reynolds said.

“What’s unique about re:generations from some other programs is that farmers that have been doing cover crops on their land in the past are eligible for this program.”

Truterra

AFT also works with the Truterra program that will be rolled out in Illinois in the near future.

Truterra is a farmer-driven ag and food sustainability program launched by Land O’Lakes in 2016. Truterra rewards recent adopters for their investment in carbon sequestration practices and engages and supports farmers through the process of implementing new practices.

Through Truterra, companies and others looking to buy carbon credits can connect with farmers and support the long-term adoption of more sustainable practices on their farms.

NRCS Funding

Congress enacted the Inflation Reduction Act in 2022 that included appropriating an additional $20 billion over the next five years to USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.

The additional funding is for existing conservation programs such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, the Conservation Stewardship Program and the Agriculture Conservation Easement Program.

“The Inflation Reduction Act directs NRCS to use those additional funds specifically for climate-change mitigation. That includes activities that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve carbon storage, practices like cover crops, reduced till or no-till, nutrient management, prescribed grazing and others,” Reynolds said.

“To put this in perspective, $20 billion is the amount of funding that NRCS typically would get for conservation programs over a 10-year period of time. So, in the next five years there’s $20 billion in addition to the $1.8 billion that’s spent nationwide on an annual basis.

“It’s a significant investment in these practices and these programs, and it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for farmers to access incentives to incentivize new conservation practices on the land.”

Act Now

One of the ways Illinois NRCS plans to utilize this new funding from the Inflation Reduction Act is through the Act Now program.

Act Now is a process that allows NRCS to quickly approve and obligate ranked applications in a designated ranking pool.

“When an eligible application meets or exceeds the ranking criteria, they’re automatically approved,” Reynolds said.

“Having worked around these programs in an NRCS office, one of the challenges and complaints that we’ve heard from farmers is the waiting period. We go into that office, we want to sign up for cover crops, and we have to wait. We may have to wait three months. We may have to wait six months.

“The Act Now program is really meant to streamline that process. They know that certain practices like cover crops, nutrient management, no-till and reduced till are priority practices for this funding. If they meet that ranking criteria they can automatically be approved.

“This is a process that we may start to see more of. They may start to use this for other NRCS programs, as well. This helps streamline the program, helps make it easier for farmers to enroll, and receive some better feedback from that process.”

Premium Discount

An Illinois program that draws more and more interest each year is IDOA’s Fall Covers for Spring Savings initiative that provides a $5 per acre crop insurance premium discount for planting cover crops.

“These do not need to be new acres but they cannot be enrolled in other programs other private programs like Partners for Conservation or EQIP, for example,” Reynolds said.

“In 2023, 160,000 acres received the premium. That included about 40,000 acres that came over from the EPA’s Gulf Hypoxia Task Force.

“The 2024 sign-up ended Jan. 15. There was 140,000 acres available and there was over 240,000 acres applied into the IDOA program. So, we’re seeing an increase in demand.

“A pre-enrollment process started this year which allowed farmers to go in and submit their information ahead of time. We’re getting a lot of feedback from farmers that it’s simple and it’s worth the $5. This makes a lot of sense, especially for farmers that are already doing cover crops.

“One of the goals that we had when we started this program was to showcase how cover crops could be thought of as a risk-reduction tool and what better way than to couple it with this crop insurance program that is the farmer’s number one safety net.”

The IDOA program requires that the acres are reported to the local Farm Service Agency office, the same way corn, soybean and wheat acres are currently reported.

“You tell them what day you planted it. I think there’s different categories for cover crops and you certify those acres,” Reynolds said.

“This certification process is going to be required for some programs. It’s a way for you to say that FSA has certified that you planted those acres.

“I encourage anyone who is planting cover crops to certify those acres because it may be an integral part of that process in providing some data and verification in some of the private markets.

“We see a huge demand for this program. We are currently advocating with the Illinois Soybean Association and others to increase the available acres to 500,000 for next year for this program.

“It is an IDOA program that receives funding through a line item in the budget. So, we’re trying to get it to where it will have a real impact in the state and will encourage farmers to adopt more cover crops acres.”

Incentive Directory

The Illinois Sustainable Ag Partnership has published a cover crop incentive directory to provide a clear comparison of programs that offer payment incentives to Illinois farmers for growing cover crops. Included in the directory are the program stacking options.

“The general rule is private programs can’t be stacked with private programs, and public programs can’t be stacked with public programs,” Reynolds said.

“It’s a really useful guide, especially when a lot of the payments alone are not enough to cover the complete cost of implementing a practice like cover crops.”

Tom Doran

Tom C. Doran

Field Editor