Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced this week a series of new efforts to help Iowa’s farmers and livestock producers conserve water and soil resources and improve nutrient management practices on the state’s 30 million acres of farmland.
Vilsack said the U.S. Department of Agriculture will expand access to USDA’s signature conservation programs for Iowa producers, making available up to 85,000 additional acres for sensitive lands, and better target grants and loans for technical assistance and capital improvements, while working with state partners to more closely align priorities in an improved “watershed-based strategy” for nutrient management.
Iowa Sec. of Agriculture Bill Northey commented on the expanded conservation efforts by saying, “I commend the Governor for offering a plan that would allow us to continue to build on the water quality efforts already under way. Since the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy was unveiled in 2012 and received its first funding in 2013, we have said this would be a long term issue and would require significant investment by farmers, landowners, ag organizations and other partners along with the state and federal government.Iowa farmers have shown a willingness to try new practices and make an investment in protecting water quality.”
Since 2009, USDA has invested more than $2.2 billion in Iowa conservation efforts and helped to enroll more than 4.5 million acres of Iowa working lands in USDA conservation programs. In addition, findings from a 2014 USDA report show that conservation work on cropland in the Mississippi River Basin, including Iowa cropland, has reduced the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus flowing to the Gulf of Mexico by 18 and 20 percent, respectively.
The goal in Iowa, said Vilsack, is to help the state replicate the totality of a watershed-based plan such as USDA’s Mississippi River Basin Initiative across Iowa’s major state watersheds, with a concerted, science-based approach. “Today, USDA is making a decade-long commitment to Iowa producers and residents to provide coordination, assistance, and greater access to available programming above and beyond what we currently offer.”
Vilsack said USDA is ready to undertake the following efforts in Iowa:
-Invest an estimated $660 million over the next decade to ensure USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentive Program, Conservation Stewardship Program and the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (which collectively invest an average of $66 million per year in Iowa conservation efforts at the current funding levels appropriated by Congress) are coordinated and complimentary to reinforce the state of Iowa’s watershed approach for nutrient management. USDA conservation experts will ensure plans target conservation systems where assistance will be most effective.
-Over the next decade, USDA will partner with organizations to promote and target wetland restoration to address water quality and habitat needs. Over the next five years, USDA will make available as much as 75,000 additional acres through the State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE) Gaining Ground program, part of the CRP program, targeted to grassland birds, and 10,000 additional acres in the CRP Farmable Wetlands program, designed to restore previously farmed wetlands and wetland buffers to improve vegetation and water flow.
-Additionally, USDA will work with Iowa’s government to identify and remove barriers to the full use of Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) funding, which targets high-priority conservation on environmentally sensitive lands, in the 37-county area that makes up the Raccoon River Watershed.
-USDA will accelerate the process of working with Iowa’s government, land-grant institutions and conservation partners to develop an ecosystem market program to better coordinate the efforts between public and private sector partners focused on nutrient management.
-Enhance outreach and education efforts to Iowa partners to ensure they are fully utilizing and leveraging USDA’s Regional Conservation Partnership Program, or RCPP. Nationally, RCPP has leveraged $800 million in conservation funds from USDA and partners to date, including three significant projects focused on Iowa: the Middle Cedar Partnership Project led by the city of Cedar Rapids; the Iowa Targeted Demonstration Watershed Partnership Project led by the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship; and a national RCPP funding pool project led by the Missouri Department of Conservation focused on regional grassland bird and grazing lands enhancement.
-USDA will work with Iowa’s state government, other federal agencies, and local and municipal governments to ensure the $25 million in existing and available USDA resources for water and wastewater treatment facilities in Iowa are being fully utilized.
-Help to identify an independent body to track coordinated investments, monitor results, and report to the public and stakeholders.
Since 2009, USDA has worked with private landowners to implement voluntary conservation practices that conserve and clean the water we drink and preserve the soil that grows our food. Today, more than 500,000 producers participate in USDA partnerships to protect land and water on over 400 million acres nationwide. USDA support—leveraged with historic outside investments from partners across the country—boosts producer incomes and rewards them for their good work. Since 2009 under Secretary Vilsack’s leadership, USDA has invested more than $2.2 billion in Iowa conservation and water quality efforts. Today, 4.5 million acres of Iowa farmland is enrolled in one of USDA’s conservation programs.