Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is beginning to provide details on how USDA will implement the Agriculture Act of 2014, and one of the secretary’s first announcements concerned the conservation title of the new farm bill.

Vilsack traveled to Bay City in Michigan, the home state of Sen. Debbie Stabenow, chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, to announce the provisions of the new Regional Conservation Partnerships Program or RCPP.

The RCPP, which Vilsack says will launch a “new era” in conservation efforts, will focus on public-private partnerships. While the announcement took place in Bay City in the Saginaw Bay Watershed in the heart of the Great Lakes region, the new farm bill program is designed to benefit similar areas or critical conservation areas (CCAs) across the nation.

“This is an entirely new approach to conservation,” said Vilsack, who lauded Stabenow for her work in crafting and securing passage of the new farm law after a nearly four-year effort. Stabenow and Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., ranking member of the Ag Committee, negotiated much of the final farm bill language with the House Ag Committee leadership.

“We're giving private companies, local communities, and other non-government partners a way to invest in what are essentially clean water start-up operations,” said Vilsack. “By establishing new public-private partnerships, we can have an impact that's well beyond what the federal government could accomplish on its own.”

Combining programs

The new RCCP will streamline conservation efforts by combining four programs – the Agricultural Water Enhancement Program, Cooperative Conservation Partnership Initiative, the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Initiative, and the Great Lakes Basin Program for Soil Erosion – into one.

Earlier, Ann Mills, deputy undersecretary for natural resources and environment, gave a preview of the program at a meeting of the Hypoxia Task Force, a group of public and private entities that have been working to reduce nutrient runoff into the Gulf of Mexico, in Little Rock, Ark.

The RCPP will competitively award funds to conservation projects designed by local partners specifically for their region. Eligible partners include private companies, universities, non-profit organizations, local and tribal governments and others joining with agricultural and conservation organizations and producers to invest money, manpower and materials to their proposed initiatives.

With participating partners investing along with the Department, USDA's $1.2 billion in funding over the life of the five-year program can leverage an additional $1.2 billion from partners for a total of $2.4 billion for conservation, according to Vilsack. $400 million in USDA funding is available in the first year.

Through RCPP, partners propose conservation projects to improve soil health, water quality and water use efficiency, wildlife habitat, and other related natural resources on private lands.