USDA Makes $1.5 Billion Available to Advance Conservation and Climate-Smart Agriculture

United States Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has announced the availability of an historic $1.5 billion in fiscal year 2024 to invest in partner-driven conservation and climate solutions through the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) as part of President Biden’s Investing in America agenda. USDA is accepting project proposals through July 2, 2024 to help farmers, ranchers, and forest landowners adopt and expand conservation strategies to enhance natural resources while tackling the climate crisis. These projects in turn can save farmers money, create new revenue streams, and increase productivity.

 

RCPP offers two separate funding opportunities: RCPP Classic and RCPP Alternative Funding Arrangements (AFA). RCPP Classic projects are implemented using Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) contracts and easements with producers, landowners and communities in collaboration with project partners. Through RCPP AFA, the lead partner works directly with agricultural producers to support the development of innovative conservation approaches that would not otherwise be available under RCPP Classic. NRCS will set aside $100 million for Tribal-led projects to be used between both funding opportunities.

 

What are the vision and goals of the program? The RCPP follows a partner-driven approach to conservation that funds solutions to natural resource challenges on agricultural land. The following are the three key principles of RCPP:

  1. Impact. RCPP proposals must include effective and compelling solutions that address one or more natural resource concern to help solve natural resource challenges. Partners are responsible for evaluating a project’s impact and results.
  2. Partner Contributions. Partners are responsible for identifying any combination of cash and in-kind value-added contributions to leverage NRCS’s RCPP investments. Partner contributions are evaluated based on their share of overall project costs and the value of qualified expertise that they add to achieving project goals and objectives.
  3. Partnerships and Management. Partners must have the experience, expertise, and capacity necessary to manage the partnership and project, provide outreach to producers, and quantify the environmental impacts, and when possible, economic, and social outcomes of an RCPP project. The RCPP ranking criteria give priority consideration to applicants that meaningfully engage historically underserved (HU) farmers and ranchers.

 

Successful RCPP applicants will (1) bring an array of financial and technical capabilities to projects; (2) demonstrate experience working effectively and collaboratively with agricultural producers and landowners; and (3) propose sustainable, and measurable approaches to achieving compelling conservation outcomes.

 

What is the funding and duration of RCPP? The funding available under RCPP is substantial, ranging from $250,000 to $25 million, providing financial resources through both the classic RCPP and alternative funding arrangements (AFA). RCPP projects typically last 5 years, and applicants must submit a justification for the proposed length. Applicants may request a PPA length that is longer or shorter than 5 years and must justify the timeframe.

 

Proposals will need to select one of two funding pools and will only be considered for selection within that funding pool, with approximately 50% of the total RCPP funding allocated to each funding pool.

  1. Critical Conservation Area (CCA) Funding Pool. The Secretary of Agriculture has designated eight CCAs that represent landscapes with identified priority resource concerns outlined in the NOFO. Each CCA proposal must address at least one of the relevant CCA priority resource concerns.
  2. State and Multi-state Funding Pool. Proposals in the state and multistate category must be carried out either within a single state or in multiple states. For multistate projects, priority consideration will be given to proposals identifying a manageable number of states.

What entities are eligible to apply? Entities that are classified as one of the following organizational types can serve as an eligible RCPP partner:

 

  • Agricultural or silvicultural producer associations or groups of producers;
  • State or local governments;
  • Indian Tribes;
  • Farmer cooperatives;
  • Water districts, irrigation districts, or other organizations with specific water delivery authority to agricultural producers;
  • Municipal water or wastewater treatment entities;
  • Institutions of higher education;
  • Organizations, businesses or entities with an established history of working cooperatively with producers, as determined by NRCS, to address:
    • Local conservation priorities related to agricultural production, wildlife habitat development, or nonindustrial private forest land management; or
    • Critical watershed-scale soil erosion, water quality, sediment reduction, or other natural resource issues;
  • Entities, such as an Indian Tribe, state government, local government, or a non-governmental organization, that have a farmland or grassland protection program that purchases agricultural land easements; and
  • Conservation districts.

 

The lead partner (applicant) for a proposal must meet one of the eligible partner categories. Each project must have a single lead partner, which is the entity that submits an RCPP proposal and negotiates a programmatic partnership agreement (PPA) with NRCS. The lead partner is ultimately responsible for ensuring that project deliverables are completed (including all partner contributions) and reporting on project outcomes.

 

What are the agency’s funding priorities for this grant?

Proposals that address one or more agency priorities will be prioritized over similarly scored proposals within the same funding pool (state, multistate, and CCA). Proposals that address a climate smart agriculture or Inflation Reduction Act priority area will receive consideration for both 2018 Farm Bill funding and IRA funding. All other proposals may only be considered under 2018 Farm Bill funding.

 

  1. Climate-Smart Agriculture and Forestry through the Inflation Reduction Act

NRCS intends to award a significant portion of the available funding to proposals that focus on Climate-Smart Agriculture and Forestry approaches, systems, and practices that provide climate change mitigation benefits (i.e., reduce greenhouse gas emissions and sequester carbon). NRCS will prioritize projects that support the implementation of conservation projects that assist agricultural producers and nonindustrial private forestland owners in directly improving soil carbon, reducing nitrogen losses, or reducing, capturing, avoiding, or sequestering carbon dioxide, methane, or nitrous oxide emissions, associated with agricultural production. Examples include the implementation of soil health management systems, nutrient and manure management practices, and practices that increase the storage of carbon in forests or grasslands. For easements, NRCS will prioritize forest, wetland, and grassland easements that protect land and habitats that are or will be in permanent vegetative cover, are located on soils high in organic carbon, or will be managed to contribute to carbon sequestration.

  1. Advancing Equity, Justice, and Equal Opportunity

NRCS gives priority consideration to RCPP proposals that offer meaningful and measurable engagement with and benefit to HU producers and landowners and Indian tribes. This includes projects led by HU entities with an established relationship to their respective HU communities. NRCS may provide special consideration to lead partners with limited partner contributions if their projects substantively benefit HU producers or landowners or Indian tribes. In addition, HU producers and landowners may be eligible for special incentives (e.g., higher payment rates for conservation practices or entity-held easements) to encourage their participation in RCPP projects.

  1. Projects led by Indian Tribes.

NRCS is reserving $100 million for PPAs with Indian tribes. Any unused funds will return to the general funding pool.

  1. Urban Agriculture

NRCS also strongly encourages submitting RCPP proposals that address the conservation needs of urban farmers in metropolitan areas. Urban farmers face unique natural resource concerns related to energy conservation, water conservation, soil health, and the long-term protection of land.

 

What is the deadline for RCPP applications? NRCS must receive proposals by 4:59 p.m. Eastern Time on July 2, 2024.

 

The full Notice of Funding Opportunity can be found here.

 

For more information on this grant or how to apply with Morrison’s assistance, please contact the Morrison Grants Team at grants@morrisonco.net or call us at 530-893-4764.

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