Regional Conservation Partnership Program: Funding Available and Awards
May 5, 2021
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently announced its list of fiscal year (FY) 2021 Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) awards. In addition, USDA announced the availability of up to $75 million for Alternative Funding Arrangements (AFAs) under RCPP. Applications for RCPP AFA will be accepted until May 28, 2021. In this blog post, we provide background on RCPP, highlight some FY 2021 awards, and provide details on current and upcoming RCPP funding opportunities.
The Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) brings the expertise of farmers, conservation and farm organizations, and state and local agencies to conserve thousands of acres of land across the country. This program focuses on protecting watersheds by promoting soil health, well-managed working farmland, and conservation practices.
RCPP is different from other federal conservation programs in that projects must be undertaken as partnerships between a variety of stakeholders, including nonprofit groups, land trusts, landowners, and other groups. Through RCPP projects, farmers and landowners may receive payments from the organization leading the partnership rather than directly from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). The organizations that participate in the program are expected to provide significant matching funds for the project, including in-kind services such as monitoring, conservation planning, and producer assistance. Farmers who participate in the program will most often work with the partnership organizations rather than directly with NRCS.
RCPP projects are also intended to address specific natural resource concerns at a landscape scale. This can include individual states, larger regions, or entire watersheds. These areas are known as Critical Conservation Areas (CCAs). Some CCAs include the Chesapeake Bay watershed, the Mississippi River Basin, the Prairie Grasslands region, the Colorado River Basin, as well as others.
The Program in Action
Since RCPP’s creation in 2014, USDA has partnered with local and state units of government, non-profit organizations, and private sector actors to invest more than $3 billion in conservation projects across the country. Projects have focused on wildlife conservation, soil health, water quality, and many other conservation priorities. For FY 2021, USDA awarded 85 new partnership projects, totaling $330 million. Examples of the 2021 RCPP projects include:
- Million Acre Challenge RCPP led by Future Harvest, Inc. in partnership with a diverse set of five partners. This project will integrate RCPP funding into its initiative to support healthy soils on one million acres in Maryland by 2030. Implementation options for soil health systems will be developed for both crop farmers and pasture-based grazers. Future Harvest’s innovative Soil Health Benchmark Study, which provides a snapshot of a farm’s overall soil health, will be used as part of the project’s conservation planning component. Carbon benefits will be modeled using USDA’s COMET tool and economic outcomes will be evaluated by the University of Maryland. Future Harvest has a strong history of working with farmers of color and beginning farmers and will create a special funding pool and special incentives for historically underserved producers.
- Middle Columbia Steelhead Partnership led by the Yakama Nation in partnership with 14 non-governmental, state, and federal partners. The goal of this project is to restore Mid-Columbia Steelhead habitat through forest stand improvements, invasive weed removal and native species plantings, and replacing inefficient irrigation systems by working with producers and landowners in the area. The project targets farmers whose property contains riparian, wetland, or floodplain habitat that impact this Steelhead species, which is of cultural and ecological importance to the Yakama Nation.
- The Working Farms Fund led by the Conservation Fund in partnership with six local partners seeks to permanently protect farmland across the Atlanta metropolitan foodshed and create opportunities for ambitious, diverse farmers to access affordable farms through an innovative buy-protect-sell model. This project was first funded through a Conservation Innovation Grant and is being leveraged into a multiyear RCPP award. Emory University and the University of Georgia Small Business Development Center, among other project partners, will help report on the carbon sequestration and social and economic outcomes of the project. The project will ensure that at least 20 percent of its participating farmers come from historically underserved groups.
For a full list of projects, go to this website.
Current and Upcoming Funding Opportunities
There are two types of national funding announcements under RCPP: standard RCPP and RCPP Alternative Funding Arrangements (AFAs).
- RCPP is the standard version of the program where NRCS and the lead partner both oversee contracts with producers and landowners engaged in RCPP projects. The 2018 Farm Bill modified the funding pools within RCPP – allocating 50 percent of total funding for projects in CCAs, and 50 percent for state and multi-state projects administered at the local level with the advice of the applicable State technical committees. This funding opportunity will be announced later this summer, so stay tuned for more details!
- RCPP Alternative Funding Arrangements are partner-led projects that propose innovative use of federal assistance to achieve conservation benefits that are not possible under the standard RCPP construct, meaning that through AFAs eligible partners can implement projects and provide financial assistance directly to producers. The application period for RCPP AFAs is currently open until May 28, 2021. See more details below.
RCPP Alternative Funding Arrangements
NRCS can now enter into up to 15 AFAs or grant agreements per year. The application period for RCPP AFA is currently open. In order to apply for FY 2021, applications should be submitted by May 28, 2021. NRCS announced the availability of up to $75 million that will be awarded this year and distributed across 15 projects.
Following the Biden-Harris Administration’s all of government approach to addressing the climate crisis, USDA is allocating a significant portion of funds to projects related to climate friendly agriculture and forestry. However, we urge USDA to not focus solely on projects that advance carbon markets and new technologies, but that also engage early adopters and historically underserved farmers and that leverage existing federal conservation programs like the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). Furthermore, we strongly encourage USDA to retain the emphasis of the program on water quality concerns, which are interrelated to the climate crisis and cannot be overlooked.
If you’re interested in learning more about what NRCS looks for in RCPP projects, take a look at this webpage. Any partner interested in submitting an RCPP application should go through NRCS’s funding portal. We encourage interested partners to reach out to an NRCS agent as soon as possible to get the process started.