Leahy And USDA Announce Conservation Program Improvements Which Will Benefit Participating Vermont Farmers

(MONDAY, Dec. 20, 2021)– U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) Monday announced changes to USDA conservation programs which will make the programs work better for Vermont farmers and landowners.

Participants in the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) will now have more flexibility in how they meet a required 50 percent match, making it easier for landowners to conserve land through the program. The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) helps farmers implement clean water practices, such as increased buffers along fields, by reimbursing them for land taken out of production.  CREP, a component of CRP, provides additional cost-share to establish vegetative buffers adjacent to perennial streams and rivers.  A recent rule change will allow farmers to receive full payments for this land, even if farms are required to conserve the land as a result of local regulations, such as Vermont’s Required Agricultural Practices.

Leahy, former chair and the most senior member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said:  “CREP and CRP are critical tools for meeting Vermont’s water quality goals while increasing farmers’ resilience to climate change, enhancing the biological diversity and ecological health of our state, and, importantly, improving farm viability.  I pushed hard for this during the prior administration and am pleased that Secretary Vilsack and Administrator Ducheneaux have made it a priority to enact these changes that will finally leverage the programs’ full potential in Vermont and give farmers the support and flexibility they need to take their climate stewardship even further.”

“CREP is one of the most flexible tools we have for locally-driven, partner-led efforts to reward producers and drive important environmental and climate outcomes,” said Farm Services Agency (FSA) Administrator Zach Ducheneaux.  “We look forward to working with new, diverse partners – including those here in Vermont – to shape CRP to address priorities most important to them and to local communities, from water quality and conservation to wildlife habitat and climate outcomes. The CREP changes in this rule will remove barriers and provide partners with increased flexibility to participate in this powerful program.” 

A Dec. 6, 2019, rule required that 50 percent of matching funds from partners be in the form of direct payments, which made it more difficult for some USDA partners to participate in CREP. With this rule change, partners can now provide matching funds in the form of cash, in-kind contributions, or technical assistance. The December 2019 rule also subjected states like Vermont to a 25 percent payment reduction through the program if state regulations require farmers to implement minimum water quality practices, as Vermont’s Required Agricultural Practices do. The payment reduction was in direct contradiction to a provision included by Leahy in the 2018 Farm Bill that directed USDA to allow these states to participate and is corrected as a result of today’s announcement.  This rule change will directly benefit Vermont farmers, who will no longer receive lowered levels of federal reimbursement simply because Vermont requires them to implement water quality practices.

To help partners access the CREP program, FSA has hired three additional staff.  Among them is Evelyn Whitesides, who will focus on Vermont and other Eastern states.   

“We want to build capacity so that we can better reach partners, including those who we may not have worked with before,” Ducheneaux said.  “We’re taking action to reduce barriers to access and opportunity for historically underserved producers and landowners, and by engaging more partners, we’re working with groups that provide a direct link to these communities.”  

These investments in CREP build on other recent outreach and education efforts, including a  $4.7 million investment announced this year to establish partnerships with organizations to provide outreach and technical assistance to historically underserved farmers and ranchers on a variety of FSA programs, including conservation programs.  

Currently all CREP partners are state agencies, however FSA is strongly encouraging Tribes and non-government organizations to consider partnerships.

Eligible entities include State agencies, Tribal groups, and non-government conservation organizations. Potential partners interested in CREP should contact Vermont’s FSA office.

“We are pleased with this update here in Vermont, and we hope it will increase interest and participation in CRP and CREP among the state’s agricultural producers,” said Lana Walden, FSA’s Acting State Executive Director in Vermont.  “The program is a great conservation option for our farmers to help USDA conserve sensitive land, like buffers along streams and rivers, wetlands and critical wildlife habitat. It is important that the program is an accessible, viable management option.”   

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