'Once in a lifetime' federal money is coming to Wisconsin's farm conservation programs

Madeline Heim
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

A sweeping federal investment in combating climate change will almost double the amount of money Wisconsin receives for some of its farm conservation programs, meaning more farmers will be able to get help protecting their soil, reducing runoff and improving water quality.

Rachel Bouressa spools out line while deviding a pasture in to two smaller pastures on the Bouressa Family Farm last summer in the Township of Royalton.

The Inflation Reduction Act, signed by President Joe Biden last August, is a $750 billion effort to reduce health care costs, bolster tax collections, and encourage clean energy production. As part of that last component, nearly $20 billion is headed to the Natural Resources Conservation Service over the next few years to beef up conservation programs. The money is specifically aimed at practices that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions and protect working lands against climate change.

The influx of money means local conservation staff will need more hands on deck to get the money out the door to projects that need it most.

"We are viewing this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work with farmers we've never worked with before," said Melissa Bartz, assistant state conservationist for financial assistance programs for the Conservation Service's Wisconsin office. "We're not going to let people down."

Here's what you should know about the programs and the new funding.

What are these conservation programs?

The Natural Resources Conservation Service, which is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, runs several programs that give farmers financial and technical assistance to do projects that protect soil, air, wildlife and water quality. Enrollment in the programs is voluntary.

Two of the most popular programs are the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, known as EQIP, and the Conservation Stewardship Program, or CSP. EQIP helps farmers address a natural resource problem on their land, like planting a cover crop to prevent soil erosion. CSP operates like a reward program, helping farmers who already pursue conservation to expand those practices.

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In 2022, the Conservation Service funneled $33.3 million in financial assistance to Wisconsin through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and $15.5 million through the Conservation Stewardship Program, according to the agency's annual report.

Where does funding come from now?

Conservation programs are funded through the Farm Bill, which governs programs and spending for the USDA. Congress reauthorizes a new Farm Bill every five years, and a new one is expected this year.

Across the nation, there are more farmers who want to participate in the programs than there are dollars available for them to do so. In 2021, for example, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and Conservation Stewardship Program were only able to fund about one-third of the producers who had applied for grants, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center. And if a farmer can't get financial support to pursue a project, it often means it goes undone.

Wisconsin's office of the Natural Resources Conservation Service typically can fund more projects that farmers want to pursue because they have access to additional pots of money, such as the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, Bartz said.

What will the Inflation Reduction Act money do?

The Inflation Reduction Act, which was signed into law last August, provided $19.5 billion for Natural Resources Conservation Service programs to use for "climate-smart agriculture." The funding will come over the next five years.

This new money can cover practices that help farmers reduce greenhouse gas emissions and counteract climate change impacts on their land, like cover cropping, rotational grazing, wetland restoration and agroforestry. Bartz estimated that about 75% of the Conservation Service contracts funded in Wisconsin would already fall under the realm of climate-smart agriculture.

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The funding in Wisconsin will scale up over the coming years, in some cases almost doubling what the programs currently receive from the Farm Bill. The projected funding levels are as follows:

  • This year, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program has received about 2.7 million and CSP has received about $4.3 million
  • In 2024, EQIP will get $15 million and CSP will get $10 million
  • In 2025, EQIP will get $30 million and CSP will get about $15 million
  • In 2026, EQIP will get $35 million and CSP will get $20 million

What are the potential challenges?

With such a dramatic increase in funding, it will be incumbent on the Natural Resources Conservation Service to get that money out the door to the projects that can make the most impact. Nationally and locally, there have been questions about whether the agency has the staffing to do it.

"Looking at '25 and '26, those are going to be huge years," Bartz said. "We need to get people hired now."

NRCS is advertising positions on the front page of its website and, in a May 5 press release, expressing its aim to "quickly (ramp) up hiring of new team members" to help implement Inflation Reduction Act funding.

Some of the hiring money comes from the Inflation Reduction Act itself and some comes from the Farm Bill. Hiring is already underway, including by partner groups such as local land conservation departments and Pheasants Forever which receives money from the Conservation Service to hire staff to assist their work. Bartz said the agency is giving consideration to the fact that the Inflation Reduction Act money is time-limited and that after five years is up, they'll have to pay for those positions in other ways.

Wisconsin Farmers Union president Darin Von Ruden, who owns a 50-cow organic dairy farm in Westby, said he did wonder whether the offices could handle that amount of work, but had heard promising things from his local NRCS office about ramped-up capacity. The bigger question, he said, will be whether there'll be enough information getting out to farmers about the new funding opportunity and how they can use it.

There are also concerns that the influx of new money will make Farm Bill funding of the conservation programs a target of spending cuts, especially in light of a new rule in the U.S. House that requires all mandatory spending increases to be offset with an equal or greater spending decrease. Sustainable agriculture advocates say that will create a need to protect certain funds within the Farm Bill instead of advocating to increase them.

In a March press conference about the Inflation Reduction Act funding, U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, a Democrat who represents Wisconsin's 2nd Congressional District, said conservation program funding needs to remain at the level of the current Farm Bill despite "others in Congress" who want to redirect it to other priorities.

U.S. Rep. Derrick Van Orden, a Republican who represents much of western Wisconsin and sits on the committee that will write the House version of the Farm Bill, said in a statement that he would "evaluate proposals that seek to protect our environment while prioritizing policies that empower farmers to be the best stewards of their land."

Madeline Heim is a Report for America corps reporter who writes about environmental issues in the Mississippi River watershed and across Wisconsin. Contact her at 920-996-7266 or mheim@gannett.com.