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Revisit and Retool Conservation Incentive Programs

Several existing programs work well and should continue to serve as the core of conservation incentive programs. A willingness exists however to revisit existing programs to improve delivery, and explore innovative new incentive structures.

Participants widely acknowledged that a good conservation incentives program structure exists in the Commonwealth to fund conservation, which has contributed to progress achieved to date. These programs include: USDA programs such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), and the Conservation Reserve and Conservation Reserve Enhancement Programs ( CRP and CREP); state programs such as Growing Greener and the Resource Enhancement and Protection (REAP) program; and EPA funding through Section 319 grants and the Chesapeake Bay Stewardship Fund administered by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF).

Conference participants explored opportunities to revisit many of these programs to improve delivery of conservation incentives. In particular, programs to fund forest riparian buffers (primarily CREP) were discussed by many groups. The water quality and multifunctional benefits of buffers and their high cost efficiencies were noted by many and make buffers a very high priority practice. Yet participants also acknowledged that it is hard to incentivize producers to establish forest buffers when they are seeking to maximize production value from their acreage. “A lot of effort is going in to something that is a tough sell,” noted one participant.

The need to develop a more streamlined, flexible riparian buffer program was identified. This includes streamlining paperwork associated with programs to make them easier for producers and providing flexibilities in the standards for buffer establishment and management, including minimum widths and allowable uses within buffer zones. “Buffer bonus,” an innovative buffer incentives approach offered in certain areas by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and Stroud Water Research Center, was mentioned by several as being successful and worth scaling up. Producers willing to install forest buffers earn a per-acre bonus payment which they can then apply toward their own cost share toward implementation of other conservation practices on the farm.

In addition, participants identified existing challenges and shortcomings in delivering buffer technical and administrative assistance—including outreach and maintenance assistance—with respect to forest riparian buffer programs. Where these shortcomings coincide with areas of high priority areas for buffer restoration, this becomes a critical problem. Increasing delivery staff in these regions and enhancing collaboration of partners was suggested.

Additional improvements to existing programs were discussed.  For example, the REAP tax credit program, widely recognized as a success, might attract more producers if property tax credits were offered. Using REAP to incentivize management that benefits soil and water health—that is, creating performance based incentives rather than practice based—was also offered.

Adding baseline conservation requirements to the Clean and Green property tax relief program was also suggested. A bill introduced last session in the General Assembly, HB 1447, would do just that by requiring compliance with agricultural erosion and sediment control plans and manure management plans in order to receive tax relief. Concepts for implementing this requirement were discussed, including: linkage to the agricultural certification program discussed or development of a third party certification program; a conservation district role to help producers keep their Clean and Green eligibility; and a DEP compliance focus on producers not certified as eligible. Some producers at the conference indicated that they would be willing to pay for certification in order to ensure continued tax relief.

Participants also discussed whether more strategic incentive payment program policies could be developed to influence action by non-compliers. Much discussion was had about whether public resources should be used to develop conservation plans for farmers who have been legally required to have them for three decades, with views on both sides of the issue. One interesting idea which emerged was offering funding for planning for a limited time, but then withholding funding and perhaps even issuing fines for farmers who have not gotten their plans after a date certain.  

With respect to existing conservation programs in general, many participants expressed that there are just too many programs and too much paperwork associated with these programs. On the other hand, some participants pointed out that it must be acknowledged that these are for the most part government programs, and compliance with federal and state laws and regulations will necessarily carry some level of paperwork requirements. NRCS works hard to spend its funding effectively by targeting conservation program funding and utilizing a local workgroup process to identify local resource concerns.  

Yet despite best efforts, some participants expressed that it is difficult for producers and even conservation professionals to navigate the alphabet soup and the administrative terrain to even begin to determine what program is the right fit. Moreover, this contributes to money being spent ineffectively. “We can’t solve the problem by just throwing money at it,” said one participant. “What is being spent now is not being spent effectively.” To this end, suggestions were made to develop a print and web based clearinghouse for incentives program information.

Another suggestion was to streamline the process for obtaining multiple state and federal funding opportunities into more of a local “block grant” process whereby partners in local leadership—such as county conservation districts or a coalition of local organizations—would receive dollars for implementation, determine priorities, and more effectively spend resources to implement conservation on the ground.

Participants also felt that new incentive programs should also be considered and developed. Many participants were supportive of developing a certification and recognition program to recognize and reward those producers are doing an outstanding job protecting water quality. Rewards could take the form of signage, payments and/or certainty from inspections or new regulations, provided the conservation bar was set high enough and the regulatory relief granted was not from existing requirements.

Another concept suggested is working with the food industry and consumers to develop consumer driven, market based incentives for food produced by farms practicing good conservation for clean water. “We have the ‘PA Preferred’ label,” said one participant. “This should be part of what consumers ‘prefer.’ Perhaps food produced by Pennsylvania farms meeting the conservation standard becomes ‘PA Premium’.” These types of programs may also be attractive to large corporations involved in food and agriculture as part of their corporate sustainability programs and supply chain management.

In addition to adding conservation requirements to the Clean and Green program, bringing agricultural lenders and insurers into the conversation was also discussed. This could build upon a 2014 Farm Bill requirement for conservation compliance in order to participate in federal crop insurance programs. Having such entities require conservation and nutrient management plans and meeting all regulatory requirements as prerequisite to necessary financial services could be a powerful incentive to bring non-compliant farmers into compliance.

Other new incentives programs suggested by participants include: reverse auctions (winning bids are those achieving environmental performance based outcomes at lowest cost); debt forgiveness (debt on USDA loans is discharged in exchange for implementing conservation); and a cover crop payment program.  Because of barriers to acceptance of government funding which exists within the Plain Sect, development of a special incentives program for that community involving private entities and not government funding was also offered.

Opportunities for innovation by partnering outside the agricultural community were also discussed. Many participants supported developing partnerships with municipalities with permitted municipal separate storm sewer systems (MS4) faced with meeting nutrient and sediment reductions. Some noted that no-till and cover cropping systems provide high levels of stormwater infiltration. Allowing MS4 municipalities to receive credit for funding agricultural practices could allow them to meet required reductions more cost effectively and would connect urban and agricultural communities in positive, collaborative approaches.

Public-private partnerships to fund larger scale, regional restoration projects involving stream and floodplain restoration through remediation of legacy sediments were also mentioned as worthy of pursuing. These projects can produce multiple, “stacked benefits,” including not only nutrient and sediment reductions but flood management, ecosystem restoration and habitat improvement.