The USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in Nebraska continued its conservation work across the state despite a tough 2020 marked with a pandemic and several natural disasters.
The agency helped farmers and ranchers implement conservation practices on their working lands, which help conserve natural resource such as soil, water and wildlife as well as boost producers’ bottom lines. NRCS also launched new online tools that increased the efficiency, effectiveness and delivery of crucial programs.
“NRCS helps people help the land in the good times and the challenging times,” said Craig Derickson, NRCS State Conservationist in Nebraska. “I have heard stories from across the state, where our team often uses creative means to help producers meet their conservation and business goals. Additionally, we continued our efforts to streamline program delivery and to work with our USDA counterparts to best serve the needs of producers.”
NRCS delivered services during the COVID-19 pandemic using social distance guidelines, phone and online tools. The organization worked with producers and communities to:
- Develop more than 100,000 conservation plans nationally.
- Co-invest $1.32 billion through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) to put conservation practices on 10 million acres, as well as $507 million through the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) to put conservation enhancements on 9.3 million acres. This includes 335,000 acres of EQIP in Nebraska and 500,000 acres of CSP in Nebraska.
- Enroll more than 430 new easements, totaling 230,000 acres, into the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP). This includes 18 new easements for 5,400 acres in Nebraska.
- Enter into over 420 agreements with local sponsors to cooperatively implement emergency recovery measures through the Emergency Watershed Protection Program (EWP) and obligated more than $251 million in EWP funds in FY 2020. In Nebraska assistance was provided to individual landowners affected by flood events through the Emergency Watershed Protection Program-Flood Plain Easements (EWP-FPE). A total of 18 eligible applications are currently being processed which will result in easements on 5,600 acres.
Soil health: NRCS continued to prioritize adoption of soil health management systems. In fiscal 2020, NRCS provided financial assistance to help producers plan to plant cover crops on 18 million acres and to use no-till on 7.3 million acres.
NRCS also rolled out a new Soil Health Toolbox, which offered useful tools to demonstrate how soil functions and to help guide management decisions that will improve soil health with NRCS conservation practices.
Water quality: NRCS continued its investments in targeted water quality initiatives, which increase the return on investment in terms of improving water quality in priority waterways. NRCS will continue its work through the National Water Quality Initiative and Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative in 379 priority watersheds for fiscal year 2021, including four watersheds in Nebraska.
Wildlife Habitat: Farmers and ranchers across the country have continued their work on managing for habitat on working lands. From the sagebrush sea in the West to the longleaf pine forests of the South, producers are making a difference for wildlife.
NRCS continues to plan for future wildlife conservation, and this year rolled out a new five-year Working Lands for Wildlife conservation strategy for the gopher tortoise, the keystone species of longleaf pine forests in the Southeast. Nebraska NRCS invested $2.5 million in practices benefiting wildlife statewide and in one Working Lands for Wildlife project.
NRCS and the Farm Production and Conservation (FPAC) Business Center rolled out a new decision tool this year for producers on farmers.gov. The Conservation Concerns Tool enables landowners to learn about conservation concerns that might impact their agricultural operations, then search for solutions targeted to fit their business needs.
Producers can also log into farmers.gov to manage their conservation business online. During the past year, key functions from NRCS’s Conservation Client Gateway were moved to the farmers.gov portal to provide one place where producers can manage all their USDA business online.
Producers can also find a new video series, called “Conservation at Work” that spotlights how producers are using key conservation practices.
The Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) and Conservation Innovation Grants (CIG) Program continued to rally partners to help increase the reach of conservation and support the development of new tools, approaches, practices and technologies to further natural resource conservation on private lands.
NRCS just closed the application period for RCPP, with plans to invest $360 million nationally in projects that improve the nation’s water quality, combat drought, enhance soil health, support wildlife habitat and protect agricultural viability.
The agency invested $50 million nationally in 10 conservation projects through RCPP Alternative Funding Arrangements, where partners are given the liberty to manage projects and the associated relationships with producers and landowners directly.
In October 2020, NRCS awarded more than $14.6 million in grants to 24 CIG projects nationally. This USDA investment has generated more than $15.3 million in partner matching funds, resulting in almost $30 million for conservation innovation nationally. Authorized in the 2002 Farm Bill, the CIG Program has awarded nearly $300 million to date
NRCS made strides in implementing the 2018 Farm Bill in the past year. The agency published final rules for EQIP and CSP this fall and is preparing to publish final rules for ACEP and RCPP.
Updates were published to the National Conservation Practice Standards, which includes 58 standards. The 2018 Farm Bill required review all 169 of the national conservation practices to seek opportunities to increase flexibility and incorporate new technologies.