Can History Making $20 Billion in Inflation Reduction Act Get Rolled Out Quickly Enough?

    The Inflation Reduction Act includes dollars to fund conservation projects on the farm and ranch through practices like cover cropping, conservation tillage, wetland restoration, prescribed grazing, nutrient management, tree planting and more. (Lori Hays)

    In the pecking order of priorities on the farm, conservation practices have often ranked relatively low on the list – not from a lack of farmer interest so much as the result of limited dollars and cents.

    That’s certainly been the case with federal resources available through USDA. Contracts for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), for instance, were awarded to only 31% of farmer applicants between 2010 and 2020, according to a report issued by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) last year. Likewise, only 42% of Conservation Stewardship Program applications were funded during that decade.

    But conservation funding opportunities are getting an unprecedented financial boost with implementation of the legislative package dubbed the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) of 2022. The package was signed into law by President Joe Biden last August.

    “How often have we said regarding conservation, ‘if only we had the money to do that?’ Well, now we have the money to do that; it’s a generational opportunity,” said John Larson, senior vice president of the American Farmland Trust, during a panel discussion on the topic of farm policy and funding at the 2023 Trust In Food Symposium in Nashville, Tenn.

    “The thing that we need to focus on is implementing that funding in a way that meets the needs of farmers and ranchers in the field to accomplish their desired conservation outcomes, because that’s going to be key,” he added.

    IRA Funding Allocation Specifics Outlined

    The IRA totals approximately $740 billion, including nearly $40 billion earmarked for agriculture, forestry and rural development. Of that latter amount, roughly $20 billion is funding earmarked for agriculture conservation.

    Specific funding allocated by the IRA includes:
    •    $8.45 billion for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program
    •    $4.95 billion for the Regional Conservation Partnership Program 
    •    $3.25 billion for the Conservation Stewardship Program
    •    $1.4 billion for the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program 
    •    $1 billion for conservation technical assistance
    •    $300 million to measure, evaluate, quantify carbon sequestration and greenhouse gas emission reductions from conservation investments

    Conservation Projects Need Funding This Season

    The challenge now is whether the agriculture industry will be able to move quickly enough to implement the IRA program and harvest the benefits in a timely manner.

    “If the conservation community doesn’t get all those billions of dollars invested – not spent but invested – in the next 24 months there’s not going to be additional resources made available (in the future),” said Bruce Knight, principal and founder of Strategic Conservation Solutions and former head of the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), during the Trust In Food panel discussion.

    The conservation community must move quickly to get funding into the hands of farmers and ranchers and demonstrate it values and respects “the taxpayer trust that they have been handed,” Knight added.

    Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced initial implementation plans for the IRA funding in mid-February. As of last week (March 17), a press release from Vilsack’s office said applications for the first IRA funding cycle had closed for the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, Agricultural Land Easements and Wetland Reserve Easements.

    While NRCS accepts applications for its conservation programs year-round, farmers and livestock producers interested in EQIP or CSP financial assistance through IRA should apply by their state’s ranking deadline to be considered for funding in the current cycle, Vilsack said in a release. Farmers can click here to learn more about state application ranking dates.

    If farmers apply after the program ranking date specified, NRCS said it will automatically consider their application during the next cycle.

    ‘A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats’

    While Democrats backed passing the IRA unanimously last summer, Congressional Republicans voiced unanimous opposition to the legislative package.

    Love it or hate it, the IRA represents an opportunity to benefit a variety of people and organizations, said Randy Russell, president of The Russell Group, during the Trust In Food panel discussion.

    He referenced benefits he observed from the Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities program. USDA invested up to $2.8 billion in 70 selected projects in the first pool of funding in 2022.

    The agency said the climate-smart commodities program provided positive outcomes for up to 60,000 farms, representing more than 25 million acres of working land.

    “The real strength of that program is that it forged relationships up and down the food chain between land grant universities, nonprofits, the conservation community, the environmental community, and ag produce organizations,” Russell said. “It really leveraged using private sector dollars to build these partnerships.”

    Russell’s hope is that the Inflation Reduction Act will provide similar outcomes.

    Vilsack said in a press release the IRA funding will provide direct climate mitigation benefits and expand access to financial and technical assistance for growers and livestock producers to advance conservation on their farm, ranch or forest land through practices like cover cropping, conservation tillage, wetland restoration, prescribed grazing, nutrient management, tree planting and more.

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