Source: ARA

USDA's Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) has issued an interim final rule in the Federal Register requesting comments on proposed revisions to the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). This proposal amends existing EQIP regulations as mandated in the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008 (2008 Farm Bill).

USDA is seeking written data, views or arguments on all aspects of this interim rule, especially as it relates to economic, environmental, or federalism effects that may result from any final rule. Comments will help USDA in the development of procedures for the EQIP program. Please email your comments on the EQIP questions posted below to Jon Samson, ARA director of public policy, at ARA plans to submit a comment letter on the EQIP program and needs input from ARA members.

EQIP was reauthorized in the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008 to provide a voluntary conservation program for farmers and ranchers that support agricultural production and promotes environmental quality. This program is under the direction of the NRCS department of USDA. As defined by NRCS, EQIP offers financial and technical help to assist eligible participants install or implement structural and management practices on eligible agricultural land. EQIP activities are carried out according to an environmental quality incentives program plan of operations developed in conjunction with the producer that identifies the appropriate conservation practice or practices to address the resource concerns.

ARA has reviewed the EQIP interim final rule and requests that members provide comments to ARA staff. Key questions that will provide the most assistance to ARA in preparing comments to USDA regarding this rulemaking include the following:

1. Comments on the importance of Technical Service Providers (TSP), specifically third-party providers, to the EQIP program. Also, the importance of State Technical Committees in providing advice to the State Conservationist.

2. Comments on a "fair and reasonable" payment rate for TSPs. USDA has proposed a policy establishing that the NRCS State offices will determine fair and reasonable payment rates for TSP assistance using guidelines established by the National Office and local NRCS cost, market, and procurement data that are available. NRCS will emphasize using market rate data where available to determine TSP payment rates.

3. Comments on what type of comprehensive planning activities should be eligible for payment under EQIP. Current activities include: comprehensive nutrient management plans and integrated pest management plans.

4. Comments on the revised definition of "technical service provider (TSP)." The new definition clarifies that TSP's are used to provide technical services to program participants, in lieu of or on behalf of NRCS. A TSP is "an individual, private sector entity, or public agency certified by NRCS to provide technical services to program participants in lieu of or on behalf of NRCS."

5. Comments on funding for non-regulated chemical mixing facilities and load pads for farmers. EQIP apparently is continuing the practice of providing cost share payments to farmers to build bulk agrichemical storage, handling and mixing facilities and load pads. These facilities are not subject to the same rigorous EPA regulations required of ag retailers. This is not a prudent use of taxpayer dollars. There are many other essential conservation practices that are more beneficial to a farm or ranch operation. In addition, there are a large number of farmers currently unable to obtain contracts for other EQIP conservation practices due to limited funding.

6. Comments on the importance of adding agricultural retailers to the list of approved entities to submit applications and plans on behalf of producers. Currently, the program lists producer associations and farmer cooperatives as the two that may submit applications on the producer's behalf.

7. Comments on the expansion of the term "conservation practice" to now include conservation planning activities.

8. Comments on technical services provided by qualified personnel not affiliated with USDA. Current inclusions are conservation planning; conservation practice survey, layout, design, installation, and certification; information, education; and training for producers. These inclusions are not limited to the list above.

9. Comments on the best methods or processes for interacting with state and local NRCS offices on EQIP or TSP.

10. General Comments on this rulemaking. What changes would you like to see in the EQIP program? How would you like to see ag retailers benefit from this program?

Please send your comments on the rule to ARA by Friday, April 10 and they will be added into an industry comment letter that will be sent to USDA prior to the April 17 deadline.