The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) is the largest federal agency in charge of food and farm policy in the US. But the agency also has a lesser known role: it runs a large portfolio of programs to promote conservation of soils, water, and wildlife habitat on farms.
California gets on average $150 million a year from the USDA’s suite of resource stewardship programs. The programs are operated by two of the nineteen agencies within the USDA: the Farm Service Agency (FSA) and the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS).
USDA’s conservation programs can be broadly grouped into three categories: (1) temporary land retirement programs, (2) longer-term or permanent “easement” programs to protect farmland, and (3) working land programs that focus on resource stewardship of lands in agricultural production. NRCS also provides technical assistance to support these efforts.
The temporary land retirement programs are underutilized in California. These programs pay landowners to take land out of production to implement conservation practices, such as planting cover crops to improve soil quality. These programs accounted for 3% of the USDA resource stewardship funding in California from 2012–17, versus 32% nationally. Low enrollment in these programs in California reflects a variety of factors, including low payments and high land values for irrigated cropland in the state.
Landowners who enroll in longer-term or permanent easement programs retain legal title but commit the land to a specific use—for instance, converting croplands to wetlands—or commit to prevent commercial development on farmland. These programs also account for a small share of the USDA stewardship portfolio. Nonetheless, USDA easements support important conservation efforts across the state. For instance, NRCS was a major partner in the restoration of Dos Rios Ranch, a project adjacent to the San Joaquin National Wildlife Refuge that converted agricultural lands to habitat and helped an endangered species, the riparian brush rabbit, make a comeback.
Working land programs are especially popular in California, accounting for almost 70% of USDA agricultural conservation funding in recent years. The majority of these funds have been used to install more efficient irrigation systems and replace old diesel engines on farms to protect air quality. Programs also support a variety of other activities, including managing manure on dairies to protect water quality or installing hedgerows to create habitat for pollinators on farms.
Generally speaking, the USDA conservation programs support conservation practices on a farm-by-farm basis. But to realize broader benefits, investments often need to be on a larger scale. The Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP)—introduced in 2014—encourages landowners to join forces on resource concerns. To date, RCPP has funded 21 projects in California, including helping rice producers extend their watering season to support migratory birds and supporting development of a traditional land management plan by the Yurok Tribe.
There is considerable potential to use USDA’s stewardship programs in new ways to help address changes on the horizon for California’s agriculture. Across the state, farms face growing requirements to address water scarcity and quality problems. Ending the long-term overuse of groundwater is a huge challenge. In the San Joaquin Valley, closing the gap will likely involve idling some cropland. It will also require finding cost-effective ways to recharge groundwater basins.
To assist in these efforts, working lands programs could support on-farm recharge as well as management practices to prevent dust, pests, and weeds on fallowed lands. Temporary land retirement programs could fund multiple-benefit management of lands that are transitioning out of irrigation, supporting efforts to conserve water, recharge groundwater, improve soil health, and restore habitat.
The 2018 Farm Bill increased the USDA’s capacity to provide this help. Funding for the largest working lands program in the valley has been increased, and it is now available to support projects by local water management agencies as well as individual farmers. Funding has tripled for the innovative RCPP program, which leverages public and private dollars to tackle regional conservation challenges. And throughout the farm bill, conservation programs now cover soil health and carbon sequestration as targeted outcomes.
By working together with the USDA, the state’s farmers and their local and state partners could make better use of these programs and address new challenges at hand.