The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) is among the most popular federal conservation programs. During an Oct. 7 hearing on the implementation of the farm bill’s conservation title, members of the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Conservation, Credit, Energy, and Research discussed EQIP funding at length.

Virginia Rep. Bob Goodlatte, subcommittee ranking member, asked Dave White, chief of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, to expound on the “big controversy in this committee” during the markup of the farm bill regarding the segmentation of EQIP funds. White’s testimony indicated that 15 percent of EQIP funds in 2009 were designated for beginning farmers and ranchers. What factors contributed to such a high percentage when the law establishes a 5 percent set-aside?

“That 5 percent, it’s my understanding, was to guarantee that the beginners (got that much),” answered White. “It doesn’t say you can’t go above that. … I think it’s a great thing we’re getting beginning farmers and ranchers in the program. If there’s an issue where we’re discriminating against (veteran) farmers, I need to find out exactly what’s occurring. I don’t think that has occurred.”

With the nation’s dairy industry in crisis, North Carolina Rep. Larry Kissell asked White if EQIP funds had been used to help dairymen.

“There is a payment limitation on EQIP of $300,000,” said White. “Congress gave us authority to waive that under certain circumstances and go back to the $450,000 (allowed under) the previous (farm) bill. Out of these thousands of contracts, we’ve waived that 11 times. Most of those were for methane digesters for dairies.”

Kissell then delved into AWEP — Agricultural Water Enhancement Program (for more, see http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/programs/awep/) — saying there seems to “be some indication that we’d spread that out to other parts of the nation.”

AWEP, said White, had 191 applications and 63 were approved. “The bulk of them were in California. We’re all aware of the drought and water quality issues there.”

AWEP will “place increased emphasis on water conservation as a priority.”

Some Missouri farmers have concerns with a USDA funding plan to deal with hypoxia in the Mississippi Basin and Gulf of Mexico, said the Show-Me state’s Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer. “As you’re aware, Missouri is one of a group that’s required to be in the Healthy Watershed Initiative (for more, see http://www.epa.gov/healthywatersheds/). It’s our understanding that funding will be implemented next year through the Cooperative Conservation Partnership Initiative (for more, see http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/programs/ccpi/), Conservation Innovation Grants (for more, see http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/programs/cig/), and potentially under both EQIP and the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (for more, see http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/programs/whip/).”

Luetkemeyer’s concern is that “funding for hypoxia will leave less money for farmers and ranchers. Can you tell us how you intend to fund the (hypoxia) program, where the funds will come from and how accessible they’ll be?”

For the 12 member states in the initiative, said White, “up to three watersheds will be selected. … Those are like 250,000 to 1.25 million acres. … So, there’s a lot of state control. Remember, if you’re from Missouri, this won’t be money taken away. … We think there’s enough money in EQIP that we can address local needs (and) that no one will be shorted.

“What we hope to do is do a better job with some of the nutrient loading. … We want to help producers the right amount of stuff on — it could be more, less, different timing. But to focus on those kinds of issues in watersheds where we see nutrient loading, we think we can have a heck of an impact. I don’t believe we’ll have a huge problem in other parts of the nation by taking this money and reserving for this use.”

e-mail: dbennett@farmpress.com