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USDA to focus millions in Prairie Pothole region

The U.S. Department of Agriculture says it will spend an extra $1.5 million annually to complete wetland determinations for farmers in North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa and Montana.

That’s been a key frustration for many farmers in the expanding corn and soybean belt, as they need the determinations to keep them eligible for farm program benefits.

The announcement came wrapped in an unrelated announcement that USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service will refocus $30 million of its existing Environmental Quality Incentive Program money for the next three years. Starting in fiscal year 2014, EQIP will add $10 million a year to the program for farmers in the region willing to implement prescribed “working grassland” management. Separately, it will expand a voluntary pilot program to develop a market for carbon sequestration credits, in exchange for permanent easements.

Robert Bonnie, USDA undersecretary for Natural Resources and Environment, told Agweek that his agency has already “staffed-up” his offices in the six-state region to handle the wetlands determinations.

Bonnie says the $1.5 million increase in funding might increase the wetland determination numbers by 2,500 per year, and mostly in the Dakotas. He declined to say how many determinations are behind schedule, or how much the expected improvement will change that.

A focus shift

The $30 million EQIP focus will put increased priority on preserving grasslands, especially as Conservation Reserve Program contracts expire in the region, Bonnie said. North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa and Montana have breeding and nesting habitats for more than 60 percent of the nation’s migratory waterfowl.

Under the focus, the NRCS will offer technical and financial help to keep working grasslands and be “compatible with agricultural production and good stewardship of soil, water and habitat resources.” The prescribed activities could include grazing rates, timing and fencing needs. Bonnie wouldn’t immediately say how much of an increase the $10 million per year is over three years and several states, or what other EQIP priorities otherwise spent here or elsewhere will not get those funds.

Also, the NRCS and the Ducks Unlimited organization in the Dakotas and Montana will work to “create a carbon marketing system for landowners who agree to avoid tilling grassland,” Bonnie said. This expands a pilot program started in North Dakota in 2011 under a Conservation Innovation Grant, and expands the geography into South Dakota and Montana.

Bonnie wasn’t aware of how many farmers or acres had been involved in the pilot program in North Dakota since 2011.

The program so far has generated an improved methodology to generate verified carbon credits that place a conservation easement on land. The methodology was accredited by the American Carbon Registry last fall, Bonnie said. The credits theoretically will be able to be sold or traded into existing voluntary carbon markets.

Bonnie said the new carbon system will depend on businesses being convinced that the carbon saved is real.

“Is it measurable? How long is it going to be there?” he says. To be eligible, landowners would have to agree to “completely voluntary” but “permanent” easements, a concept that some farm groups oppose.

Mikkel Pates

Forum News Service