Agriculture: Equipping Farms for the Future

Program Helps Fund Cleaner Air and Water, Improved Habitats

Posted April 20, 2012 at 10:53am

Few Americans see a dime of federal farm subsidies, and few may believe there’s much public benefit from the payments. But there’s one farm program that clearly helps not only farmers but also the public at large — through cleaner air and water, improved wildlife habitats and reduced use of scarce water resources.

The Environmental Quality Incentives Program, created by the 1996 farm bill, subsidizes the cost of a wide variety of projects and practices aimed at making farms and feedlots less polluting and more efficient. Among other programs, the money has gone toward renovating livestock farms to eliminate manure spills, replacing water-wasting irrigation systems and instituting soil-saving farming practices.

Much of the money has gone to large, conventional farms, the kind that produce most of the nation’s food. But under new rules, payments are also helping organic farmers or small-scale farms that are starting to grow fruits and vegetables for local sales, including farmers markets. “It’s not a handout. It’s not a giveaway, but a program that allows for the public as well as the individual owner of the land to share in the expense of those benefits,” said Jon Scholl, president of American Farmland Trust, a leading land conservation group.

EQIP payments totaled $871 million in fiscal 2011 and went to more than 38,000 farmers and landowners scattered from Alaska to Maine. Texas got the largest share ($85 million), followed by California ($74 million) and Missouri ($29 million). Demand is so heavy nationwide that the Agriculture Department turns away about one of every two applicants because of a lack of money. (The department is evaluating about 70,000 applications for fiscal 2012.)

Where Does EQIP Money Go?

Farmers can receive as much as $300,000 over a six-year period for EQIP projects. Payment rates vary but can cover up to 75 percent or more of a farmer’s cost.

With Congress preparing to write a new farm bill, one of the top priorities for a broad array of organizations is lobbying to maintain funding for EQIP as total agricultural spending is reduced.

Anne Burkholder, who operates a 3,000-head cattle feedlot in central Nebraska, used a grant from the program to pay about half the $320,000 cost of replacing a holding pond that traps rainwater washing off pens and manure piles. Overflowing holding ponds and manure lagoons on livestock operations have frequently led to fish kills in neighboring streams.

Burkholder uses water from the holding pond to irrigate and fertilize nearby corn and alfalfa fields. The old holding pond on Burkholder’s feedlot was still adequate, but the new one is lined to better keep the water from leeching underground, she said. The new facility also holds more water, which means she doesn’t have to pipe the water to the crops until they need it. “Any time that I can partner with my government to improve my farm, improve my product and improve my environmental footprint, I think that makes everybody a winner,” she said.

By law, three-fifths of EQIP payments must go to livestock producers, who don’t get the traditional farm subsidies that go to grain and cotton growers. Livestock producers use the money not only to install new holding systems for manure but also to pay for such needs as incinerators to sanitarily dispose of dead hogs and for fencing to keep cattle from getting into and polluting streams.

For croplands, water-saving irrigation equipment has been one of the most popular uses of the money. In fiscal 2011, more than
$100 million of program payments went to irrigation equipment and pipelines, but money also goes for a variety of other uses, depending on state and local priorities.

For example, in Texas, the USDA offers payments to landowners to modify fencing so that pronghorn antelope can more easily get to food sources or find cover to fawn. On the East Coast, EQIP is funding projects and farm practices that curb the runoff that pollutes the Chesapeake Bay. The projects include planting trees and grass alongside streams to protect from chemicals running off fields of corn and other crops.

In Montana and surrounding states, the program is being combined with money from other USDA programs to protect habitat for the sage grouse, a candidate for the endangered species list. In Georgia and North Carolina, EQIP is being used to help compensate farmers who switch to a three-year crop rotation to control a weed that has become resistant to glyphosate, the active ingredient in the weed killer Roundup. The USDA’s goal is to keep farmers from having to till the weed-infested ground, decreasing soil erosion.

The resistance has developed because of farmers’ widespread use of Roundup-tolerant cotton and other crops. Instead of growing the biotech cotton every year, the farmers getting the program grants will rotate to crops such as corn or sorghum and use other herbicides for weed control.

In California’s smog-ridden San Joaquin Valley, EQIP payments have traditionally gone heavily toward upgrading irrigation equipment, but a provision in the 2008 farm bill also allowed certain regions to target money toward addressing air pollution, and now farmers in California can get payments to offset 30 percent or more of the cost of buying a new, lower-emission tractor. Farmers are also getting payments to offset the expense of applying oil on dirt roads to keep down the dust. Since 2009, the region’s new EQIP-funded tractors have reduced pollution by the equivalent of taking 460,000 cars off the road, or more than 1,500 tons of nitrogen oxide gases a year, according to USDA officials in California.

It’s unusual that the USDA can give such precise estimates of the program’s benefits, however. The USDA generally has little hard data to document the environmental benefits, a shortcoming the department is trying to address.

A new effort called the Conservation Effects Assessment Project is aimed at quantifying the effect of conservation practices to better target future spending. Studies are being conducted in 42 watersheds across the country.

Not Enough to Go Around

The project will help the USDA focus on funding practices “where we can have the greatest impact per conservation dollar,” said Dave White, chief of the department’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, which administers EQIP. Results from the project will be used in the coming budget year to refine the criteria that states use to rank EQIP applications, he said.

But the department is learning that building or restoring terraces on sloping cropland is not enough to prevent nitrates and other chemicals from running off fields into streams, White said. Farmers also need to manage their fertilizer better.

One criticism of the program is that the money is spread too thin and insufficiently targeted to address major environmental problems, such as the nitrogen and phosphorus runoff from Midwest farms that creates a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

To make the EQIP money go further, financing large projects such as irrigation upgrades through loans rather than grants would make sense, said Craig Cox, senior vice president of the Environmental Working Group. But voluntary conservation measures won’t be enough to protect the soil at a time when high commodity prices are encouraging farmers to expand production and apply more fertilizer and other chemicals, Cox said. Additional regulations are needed, he said. His organization and other environmental groups want Congress to require farmers to control erosion on their land as a condition for getting federally subsidized crop insurance.

“Those voluntary programs just can’t stand up against the pressure for all-out production that farmers are experiencing today,” Cox said.

`Congress and the Obama administration have expanded eligibility for the program in recent years, increasing its reach and political support just as budget pressures are forcing reductions in federal agriculture spending.

Private forests now qualify for help, as do organic farms and producers converting to organic. In this administration, the USDA is now encouraging fruit, vegetable and herb production on small-scale farms by subsidizing temporary greenhouses called high tunnels. They allow farmers to grow crops earlier and later in the year than they otherwise could.

Will Read, 25, received about $7,200 to install a high tunnel on his 30-acre farm in Tupelo, Miss. Last year, he said, the hoop tunnel saved his business. It was an unusually wet season, and his tomatoes would have been susceptible to disease if he hadn’t grown them under cover. EQIP has also helped pay for seed to plant his cover crops.

Read said he initially had qualms about taking government aid that wasn’t available to other small businesses. But he said he has provided jobs for high school students and a source of locally grown vegetables while also showing that it’s possible to farm without the use of conventional pesticides.

“We feel like our business is an investment into the health of this community,” he said.