The conservation title of the most recent farm bill is the most significant commitment towards the conservation of private lands in the history of the United States, says Mary Combs, state conservationist with the North Carolina USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.

“The emphasis now is on working lands and private land conservation,” said Combs at the Southeast Cotton Conference in Rocky Mount, N.C. “There's more of a commitment to keeping agricultural lands in production in an environmentally sensitive manner.”

The new title, she adds, takes a “holistic” approach towards conservation and includes all natural resources. “We're looking at all natural resources in this farm bill, with an emphasis on keeping working lands healthy and productive. And ranchers and farmers will be working with us on these programs. The USDA is not a regulatory agency in the administration of these conservation programs,” says Combs.

The new programs, she says, build on the gains of past conservation programs, rewarding those farmers and ranchers who have practiced good stewardship.

Some of the “highlights” of the new conservation title, says Combs, include the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) — which is to receive a significant increase in funding — and the Conservation Security Program, which rewards producers for their past stewardship as well as encouraging further conservation practices.

The title also re-authorizes the Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program and the Conservation Reserve Program, she says.

In past years, North Carolina received about $3.5 million for EQIP, notes Combs. This past year, that amount climbed to $7 million and could reach $25 million during the life of the farm bill.

“EQIP is a working lands program, focusing on keeping land in production and keeping it healthy in an environmentally sensitive manner. It provides technical and financial assistance, and applications can be taken throughout the year. We encourage farmers to sign up for EQIP.”

EQIP utilizes a local process, she says, with locally elected soil and water conservation supervisors who help to direct state and local programs to meet local priorities. It requires that a plan of operation be developed with local supervisors and allow a cost-share of up to 75 percent for most available practices.

Changes have been made in EQIP that should prove beneficial to growers, says Combs. “We now can do a first-year payment, and the new program eliminates priority areas. In the past, we've had to target our funding. But EQIP now will be available to every county in the state.

“The ‘building down’ process also has been removed, where producers who wanted to take less cost-share could rank higher than producers who were not in a position to do that. The limit is $450,000 per contract for the life of the farm bill. Another new provision is that a 90-percent cost-share will be made available for beginning farmers and ranchers. All of these things will have to go through the federal rule-making process, and growers will be given an opportunity to comment.”

Rules are being developed, she says, for ground and surface water conservation provisions that will help farmers improve their irrigation and be more efficient with water use. A portion of EQIP dollars also will be made available to those producers who find innovative solutions for conservation measures, she adds.

The Farmland Protection Program should be especially useful for states such as North Carolina, says Combs, where farmland is disappearing at an alarmingly high rate.

“The Farmland Trust currently lists North Carolina as fourth in the nation in the loss of farmland to development. We're losing our high-quality or prime farmland at an equal rate to our marginal farmland, and that's a disturbing trend. We need to fully utilize this program in North Carolina.”

The Farmland Protection Program is a voluntary program, she explains, which will purchase development rights. “The farmer retains his right to farm the land and for all other uses. There's a 30-year opportunity, or a perpetual easement, and the easements are held by the eligible entity. The USDA's role in this program is to pass the money to entities and organizations that are in a position to acquire conservation easements.

“It's a 50/50 match program. The producer can donate part of the easement to be counted towards that 50 percent match — at least 25 percent of it.”

The Wetland Reserve Program is a land “retirement” program, says Combs, providing technical and financial assistance to landowners who want to address wetland issues. Land currently available for this program would be land that might have been a wetland at one time and has been manipulated to become farmland, she says.

“We're looking at restoring land that can be returned to being a wetland, maybe through hydrology measures and plantings. Seventy percent of the project area needs to be restored. Landowners retain access to the land - the federal government will not own the land. We're simply entering into an easement agreement with the producer.”

The Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program offers opportunities for landowners to improve and protect wildlife, says Combs. It provides cost-share projects in five to 10-year contracts.

Under the new conservation title, she says, CRP acreage increases from 36.4 million to 39.2 million acres.

Farmers will want to keep an eye on how the Conservation Security Program is funded, she says. “This is one of the more controversial provisions of the new title. Some believed we needed a program to begin to look at options for the commodity programs, and to tie payments to producers closer to tangible benefits for the public.

“This program will provide an award or payment for stewardship and conservation practices that exist on the land. Payments will include a base payment, a maintenance payment and an enhanced payment for additional stewardship or conservation.”

e-mail: phollis@primediabusiness.com