Conservation practice funding from USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) totaled a record $83 million to Iowa farmers in fiscal year 2021, which will help treat natural resource concerns on nearly 323,000 agricultural land acres.

The $83 million obligated dollars in Iowa surpassed the former record by more than $9 million, when Iowa NRCS obligated $73.7 million to Iowa farmers in 2018. In fact, the record amount is about $18 million more than the five-year average.

NRCS also wrote 10,245 conservation plans during fiscal year 2021, which cover about 797,000 acres. Conservation plans help producers reduce soil erosion, improve soil health and water quality, increase wildlife habitat, and treat other environmental is­sues such as addressing climate change.

NRCS provides conservation funding through four primary programs that are authorized through the Farm Bill: Agricultural Conservation Easement Pro­­gram (ACEP), Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), En­vironmental Quality Incentives Pro­gram (EQIP) and Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP).

Disaster assistance

Jon Hubbert, state conserva­tionist for NRCS in Iowa, said a major storyline from 2021 is the amount of disaster recovery assistance NRCS provided to Iowa landowners and one reason why program funding was up. 

“We never want to see floods, tornadoes or windstorms, but when natural disasters occur, we have experienced staff and conservation programs that can help individuals and communities,” he said.

One such program is the Emergency Watershed Protection Program — Floodplain Easements (EWP-FPE). In response to the devastating 2019 floods along the Missouri River and other parts of the state, 24 landowners covering 4,011 acres voluntarily enrolled cropland — grown annually in floodplains — into a permanent easement. NRCS invested more than $25 million to purchase the easements.

Derecho recovery

Following Iowa’s August 2020 derecho, Iowa farmers lost millions of dollars in corn from the strong winds. Although not typically a disaster recovery program, NRCS offered a special EQIP sign-up to help affected producers pay to plant cover crops in downed corn and to replace roofs on buildings that NRCS helped finance. In total, NRCS provided $1.89 million through 143 contracts covering 34,918 acres.

Traditional programs

Through EQIP, the NRCS obligated $33.9 million to treat natural resource concerns on 131,524 acres through 1,048 contracts. EQIP is a voluntary program that promotes agricultural production and environmental quality. 

Three of the most adopted conservation practices by Iowans last year through EQIP include: 

• Cover crops (869 contracts/152,643 acres/$8.1 million)

• Fencing to support prescribed grazing (343 contracts/778,201 feet/$988,252)

• Brush management (285 contracts/3,157 acres/$545,901)

In its inaugural year, 16 Iowa farmers signed up for the Iowa Soil Health Initiative, providing $1.24 million to help adopt a suite of practices to address soil and water quality, carbon sequestration and plant health.

Other programs 

The Iowa NRCS obligated about $19.7 million through new and renewed CSP contracts during the past year. In fiscal year 2021, 389 Iowa landowners signed five-year CSP contracts to treat natural resource concerns on 186,681 acres. 

CSP helps farmers build on existing conservation efforts by customizing a plan to meet conservation goals and needs.

In fiscal year 2021, Iowa NRCS also provided more than $2.2 million to Iowa farmers through the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) to treat natural resource concerns on 15,727 acres. NRCS assisted producers through five RCPP partnership agreements and 78 contracts. 

The five RCPP projects in Iowa focus on improving water quality and soil health and creating sustainable grain supply chains. 

Along with the 24 floodplain easements, five other landowners enrolled land into conservation easements through the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) — three wetland easements and two agricultural land easements. 

The wetland easements cover about 295 acres at more than $2.5 million. The ag land easements total 258 acres at an NRCS investment of $350,625.

Through ACEP, NRCS helps landowners, land trusts and other entities protect, restore and enhance wetlands, grasslands and working farms through conservation easements.