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.

Funding Pools

The RCPP has three funding pools:

•  35 percent of total program funding directed to critical conservation areas or CCAs, chosen by the agriculture secretary;

•  40 percent directed to regional or multi-state projects through a national competitive process; and

•  25 percent directed to state-level projects through a competitive process established by NRCS state leaders.

The critical conservation areas Secretary Vilsack announced today are: the Great Lakes Region, Chesapeake Bay Watershed, Mississippi River Basin, Longleaf Pine Range, Columbia River Basin, California Bay Delta, Prairie Grasslands, and the Colorado River Basin.

The announcement drew applause from a number of non-governmental and farm organizations, including the USA Rice Federation, which said it is preparing to submit a proposal for a national rice industry partnership under the RCPP.

A spokesman for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, a critic of some the government’s conservation programs, called the RCPP a “major win” for farm and sustainable agriculture organizations.

“RCPP is unique among conservation programs in its focus on targeted, project-based partnerships,” says said Greg Fogel, senior policy specialist with the NSAC. “Through RCPP, non-federal partners will bring their vast expertise to the table to help NRCS engage farmers and facilitate project implementation, including outreach, education, monitoring, and reporting.

“Public-private partnerships, such as the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, provide additional support and assistance to producers and landowners interested in reducing nutrient runoff from their land and, ultimately, improving water quality downstream in the Mississippi River,” said Jill Kostel, senior environmental engineer for The Wetlands Initiative in Chicago and co-chair of the Mississippi River Network’s Steering Committee.

NSAC officials said they have worked since 2011 to ensure that project partners are able to access the funding necessary to provide adequate outreach and technical assistance to producers. “These organizations have the expertise and relationships necessary to reach, recruit, and mobilize farmers, provide conservation planning assistance, and conduct monitoring and evaluation of project outcomes; however, they generally lack the financial resources necessary to do such work,” said Fogel.

Big step forward

“The decision to make such funding available through RCPP is a big step forward in making these new partnerships viable.”

USDA is now accepting proposals for this program. Pre-proposals are due July 14, and full proposals are due September 26. For more information on applying, read the announcement for program funding (AFP).

To learn about technical and financial assistance available through conservation programs, visit www.nrcs.usda.gov/GetStarted or your local USDA service center. For more on the 2014 Farm Bill, visitwww.nrcs.usda.gov/FarmBill.