Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack issued an Announcement of Program Funding (APF) for the newly created Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP). As its name implies, the RCPP allows for partnerships of farm and conservation organizations working with state and federal agencies to deliver federal farm bill conservation assistance to farmers to help tackle specific natural resource and environmental concerns in a specific state or region.
The announcement came May 27.
Partners, including state and local government agencies and non-governmental organizations, can develop and submit pre-proposals until July 14. NRCS will select pre-proposals by July 28. Full proposals are due by Sept. 26, with NRCS making final selections by Oct. 27.
Farmers apply to participate in a project once project areas have been determined and the partnerships begin their outreach drives.
"RCPP is unique among conservation programs in its focus on targeted, project-based partnerships," says Greg Fogel, senior policy specialist with the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.
"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. NSAC helped create RCPP and we are delighted to see its timely roll out."
According to Jill Kostel, senior environmental engineer for The Wetlands Initiative in Chicago and co-chair of the Mississippi River Network's Steering Committee, "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."
In addition to providing assistance directly to producers to implement conservation activities as part of an RCPP project, today's APF clarifies that RCPP funds may also be directed to partners for a variety of technical assistance (TA) activities, including resource assessment, conservation practice survey and design, conservation planning, and resource monitoring, among others.
According to the APF, "TA funding may be provided to a partner through the RCPP partnership agreement." Partners must indicate in their pre-proposal whether or not they are requesting TA funds.
NSAC has worked since 2011 to ensure that project partners are able to access the funding necessary to provide adequate outreach and technical assistance to producers.
"This is a major win for farm and sustainable agriculture organizations across the county," said Fogel. "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. The decision to make such funding available through RCPP is a big step forward in making these new partnerships viable."
Partners will still be required to cover a significant portion of the overall cost of the project, including in-kind services. In fact, 30 percent of a proposal's ranking score will be based on an assessment of this partner contribution. NRCS will assess both the amount of funding that a partner will bring to the table as well as the extent and type of in-kind activities, such as outreach and education, that partners will contribute.
As part of this announcement, Secretary Vilsack established eight Critical Conservation Areas. Those areas will be the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, Great Lakes Region, Mississippi River Basin, Colorado River Basin, Longleaf Pine Range, Columbia River Basin, California Bay Delta, and Prairie Grasslands.
"The Mississippi River Network supports the naming of the Mississippi River as a Critical Conservation Area under the Regional Conservation Partnership Program," says Meg Kelly, Interim Program Manager for the Mississippi River Network. "Targeting resources to reduce nutrient run off that ultimately ends up in the Gulf of Mexico is a positive move to improve water quality in our nation's great river."
Under the 2014 Farm Bill, RCPP retains existing funding from the Agricultural Water Enhancement Program and Chesapeake Bay Watershed Initiative, both of which had permanent funding from the 2008 Farm Bill. In addition to this baseline funding, RCPP – like its predecessor, the Cooperative Conservation Partnership Initiative (CCPI) – pulls funding from other existing conservation programs, referred to in the statute as "covered programs."
As with the CCPI, the list of covered programs for RCPP includes the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). Unlike CCPI, however, RCPP now also pulls funding from the conservation easement programs, an addition that NSAC championed.
Many of the projects will likely focus on particular resource issues of heightened concern in a given geographic region (e.g., nutrient pollution in impaired watersheds, wildlife habitat for threatened species, cover crop adoption to improve soil health and reduce runoff, downstream flood control through drainage management and wetland restoration, etc.), or a given set or type of farmers within a state or area interested in pursuing particular innovative conservation objectives (e.g, organic transition, young farmers adopting comprehensive conservation plans, a group of farmers pursuing carbon offset markets, etc.).