THE USDA Regional Conservation Partnership Program will fund conservation programs proposed and designed by local initiatives

THE USDA Regional Conservation Partnership Program will fund conservation programs proposed and designed by local initiatives.

New widespread federal program to focus conservation efforts at the local level

Currently, more than 60,000 landowners representing 4 million acres are enrolled in U.S. conservation programs. The newly created USDA Regional Conservation Partnership Program looks to accelerate that amount in the coming years.

As part of a new federal push to improve U.S. water quality, support wildlife habitat and enhance the environment at the local and regional levels, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the USDA Regional Conservation Partnership Program, or RCPP, which uses $370 million in 2014 Farm Bill funds for 115 projects spearheaded and designed by regional partners across all 50 states and Puerto Rico.

Currently, more than 60,000 landowners representing 4 million acres are enrolled in conservation programs, Vilsack said in a conference call Jan. 14. The RCPP looks to ‘accelerate that amount” in the coming years by allowing local or regional partners -- from landowners to local governments or nonprofits to agribusiness interests -- to come to the table with solutions to leverage conservation efforts on a local basis.

“It starts with the partnership and the invitation this program provides for people on the ground in local and regional areas to be directly engaged in identifying what needs to be done and how it needs to be done. In the past, conservation efforts activities have been pretty much a one-off experiences where our (Natural Resources Conservation Service) staff work with individual  landowners and producers to craft a plan and design as it relates to an individual farm,” Vilsack said, who touted the new program as an historic collaboration between USDA and NRCS and a watershed moment in U.S. conservation efforts in general.

Since the first Obama administration, USDA assessments were made of conservation programs that showed that if efforts could be coordinated better by identifying multiple activities within a region, or watershed, “we can have a significantly greater impact in soil health, water quality and habitat,” Vilsack said.

The 115 projects slated now to go forward under the RCPP have an average of 11 partnering entities per project. In total, local and regional partners to the projects will kick in an additional $400 million, either in in-kind services, additional expert manpower or in direct funding.

This is just the first round of projects relating to RCPP. More will be created in the coming years, Vilsack said, and this new private-public approach to regional conservation could become the benchmark in conservation efforts in the U.S. The 2014 Farm Bill provides $1.2 billion for the program over the five-year life of the bill.

Eligible RCPP partners include private companies, universities, non-profit organizations, local and tribal governments, commodity groups and other agricultural and conservation organizations and producers to invest money, manpower and materials to their proposed initiatives.

With the wider use of GPS technology and the aggregation and growing access to precise farm data, farmers now can make more precise nutrient and pesticide applications, Vilsack said, even more than they could a decade ago. This type of consideration is just one tool to use to make future conservation efforts or plans more effecient at the local level.

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