Inflation Reduction Act a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ shot (Keeping the Farm)
(Editor’s note: John Markon is a public affairs technician with Virginia NRCS.)
Ripple effects from the passage by Congress of last year’s Inflation Reduction Act will soon be felt throughout Virginia, including the two counties on the Eastern Shore.
NRCS Chief Terry Cosby, speaking in February, called the $19.5 billion in IRA funds to be added to NRCS’ national budget over the next five years “a once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity for the agency, particularly in terms of allowing NRCS to better deal with unmet demand for its financial and technical services and assistance.
Cosby said the agency receives about 100,000 applications for inclusion in its programs per year, but typically has funding to accept only 25 percent of applicants.
It’s a familiar situation to some landowners on the Shore, where applications have always tended to outnumber acceptances.
This could be changing, however, thanks both to the extra funds supplied by the IRA and a rule change made last year in the ranking system used for NRCS’ popular Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP).
“In CSP, ag operations that could qualify as ‘multi-use’ had a rankings advantage up until last year,” Templeton said. “That tended to work in favor of cattlemen, dairymen and other livestock owners who often grow hay to feed their animals. That alone made them multi-use. In our counties, the soil is so fertile and has so few rocks that using it to pasture livestock isn’t the way to get the highest productivity out of it. This tended to leave our row crop planters out in the cold.”
Templeton said she’s already fielding questions about IRA impact and expects an uptick in applications for the NRCS programs receiving extra support. The national breakdown will be:
• $8.45 billion over the next five years for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP);
• $4.95 billion for the Regional Conservation Partnerships Program (RCPP);
• $3.25 billion for CSP;;
• $1.4 billion for the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP), which takes in both ag land easements and wetlands restoration easements;
• $1 billion for Conservation Technical Assistance (CTA; and.
• $300 million for evaluation.
A deadline for applications seeking funding in Fiscal Year 2023 passed in mid-March, but applications are accepted and reviewed at all times.
Since the IRA funding will be in place for four additional years, “early bird” status isn’t a necessity. In addition, Templeton is resubmitting many of her applications already received in time for the FY2023 deadline for re-ranking.
“I have to be specific with our clients, because the IRA funds are keyed to ‘climate-smart’ conservation and production,” Templeton said. “Not every practice or enhancement in every program qualifies. A lot of our really popular EQIP practices and CSP enhancements, though, are included… things like cover crops, field borders, improved habitat for pollinators and wildlife. My unfunded applicants for 2023 who include the relevant practices outlined in the IRA will be re-submitted and get another go-round for approval.”
Templeton is also reminding her forestland owners that many of the IRA initiatives apply to them.
“We have more owners and managers of forestland out here than I think most people imagine,” she said. “I’ve been hearing from some of them, but I’m not sure all of them have the word yet.”
Another benefit of the IRA will be the expansion of the NRCS work force as Cosby said the agency is poised to add more than 3,000 new employees across the country.
NRCS clients on the Eastern Shore don’t have to wait, as Natural Resources Specialist Maggie Herrmann joined Templeton and Soil Conservationist Ben Young on the agency’s team in Accomac on March 13.
“We’re all hoping that this new investment will open up some doors for Shore farmers that may have seemed closed in the past,” Templeton said. “I think this will be particularly true for CSP, which interests a lot of our farmers. If it means we’ll be busier here in the office, we can handle that, too.”
NRCS District Conservationist Jenny Templeton, Soil Conservationist Ben Young and Natural Resources Specialist Maggie Herrmann are available to answer producers’ questions about the IRA, climate-smart technology and anything else related to agriculture.
Reach them in person at the Accomac USDA Service Center (22545 Center Parkway) or by phone at 757-787-0918.