2023 a Big Year for Climate-Smart Agriculture, President Biden’s Investing in America Agenda – Farmers.gov

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In 2023, USDA enrolled more farmers and more acres in voluntary conservation programs than at any point in history. This is in large part because of the Inflation Reduction Act, part of the Biden-Harris Administration’s Investing in America agenda, which provided a historic $19.5 billion for NRCS conservation programs for five years to help implement climate-smart practices. In fact, NRCS enrolled nearly 5,300 additional producers in our conservation programs across all 50 states.  
At NRCS, we have been working diligently to increase our capacity, streamline our programs, build new and existing partnerships, and better reach underserved producers. We’re proud of our work in 2023, and our efforts complement the hard work done by the Biden-Harris Administration over the past three years to better support America’s agricultural producers.  
In fiscal year 2023, NRCS showed “we got this” by investing over $2.8 billion in financial assistance for conservation and supporting more than 45,000 contracts, more than any year in our 89-year history. We recently released updated state-by-state data showing where those investments went – from the Inflation Reduction Act and the Farm Bill. Alongside our conservation partners, the agency successfully obligated 99.8% of all available Inflation Reduction Act funds to farmers, ranchers, and forest landowners across America. Even with the additional Inflation Reduction Act funding, NRCS had significant unmet producer demand for conservation funding. 
We are helping producers implement climate-smart practices as well as working to better quantify the benefits of that work. Last year, we increased the Climate-Smart Agricultural and Forestry Mitigation Activities eligible for Inflation Reduction Act funding for fiscal year 2024 through two of our key programs – the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). Also, we announced the key work areas for the $300 million in funding for quantifying the impact of climate-smart conservation practices on greenhouse gas emissions and carbon sequestration. For more information on Inflation Reduction Act implementation for fiscal year 2023, see our fact sheet
From agronomists to economists, NRCS’ more than 10,800 employees play a vital role in supporting our mission of helping people help the land. To successfully deliver the Inflation Reduction Act, we plan to hire more than 4,000 additional NRCS staff and support our partners in hiring nearly 3,000 staff. 
In 2023, NRCS focused its efforts on ramping up recruitment and hiring, training, retaining employees, and business planning to meet the additional staff needed to implement the Inflation Reduction Act. Among other strategies, NRCS developed a bundled hiring plan to quickly recruit and hire professional conservation planners, streamlined hiring processes, and utilized partnership agreements and internship and retiree programs to hire additional employees to assist in the effort. These strategies resulted in NRCS increasing overall hiring by 30% and decreasing separations by 33%. 
Over the past year, NRCS been working hard to streamline and simplify the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP), the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) and CSP to improve the experience for agricultural producers and conservation partners. This includes the RCPP Improvement Effort, which set priorities based on partners and staff feedback including improving the RCPP portal for partner use, simplifying agreements, and streamlining the reimbursement process. This also includes an effort to streamline ACEP appraisals, land surveys, as well as certifying eligible entities who help NRCS and producers enroll land into easements.  
Meanwhile, we also introduced Act Now, an update to our processes that enables faster delivery of conservation practices. Act Now allows NRCS to immediately approve and obligate funds for qualifying conservation program applications.  
RCPP leverages a voluntary approach to conservation that expands the reach of conservation efforts and climate-smart agriculture through public-private partnerships. RCPP is a powerful tool, and we want to make it even stronger. In 2023, NRCS made an unprecedented $1.1 billion investment to advance partner-driven solutions to conservation on agricultural land through 81 RCPP projects. RCPP leverages a voluntary approach to conservation that expands the reach of conservation efforts and climate-smart agriculture through public-private partnerships.     
In addition to RCPP, we leveraged other partnerships in 2023, including: 
Conservation Innovation Grants, including a $40 million investment in 31 projects 
Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative, including a $12 million investment in 49 projects 
We made nutrient management a higher priority in 2022, and continued to make investments to recognize how it is an important climate smart mitigation activity covered by the Inflation Reduction Act. We launched a streamlining initiative in fiscal year 2023 to incentivize nutrient management activities through EQIP, EQIP Conservation Incentive Contracts, and CSP. Through this initiative, we used a ranking threshold for pre-approval to streamline and expedite the application process, targeted outreach to small-scale and underserved producers, and coordinated within USDA to streamline the program eligibility process for producers new to USDA. We also set aside additional funds and prioritized within RCPP.  
At the heart of all of our work is equitably supporting America’s farmers and ranchers. Over the past year, we’ve focused on building awareness and capacity and taking actions to improve equity here at NRCS.  
The NRCS Equity Plan was developed to build capacity among agency leadership, staff and stakeholders to be effective in fostering equity, and to implement equitable sustainability practices that improve NRCS program processes to increase access and participation by underserved producers. Additional information on NRCS’ Equity work can be found in the NRCS Equity brochure and NRCS Equity Fact Sheet that present the mission, vision, and core values of the NRCS Equity work.  
NRCS invested $70 million and selected 139 partners as part of the 2023 Equity in Conservation Outreach Cooperative Agreements. The cooperative agreements will leverage NRCS and partner resources to develop community-led conservation projects that overcome barriers and offer opportunities for underserved producers and underserved communities to access NRCS programs and services, and to help students learn of potential career opportunities in agriculture, natural resources, and related sciences.  
We’ve also stepped up our support for urban and organic producers. NRCS leads USDA’s Office of Urban Agriculture and Innovative Production, which invested $7.4 million in grants and $9.4 million in cooperative agreements in 2023. NRCS is also helping deliver a USDA-wide effort to help producers transitioning to organic, which included a new organic management standard that provides flexibility for producers to get the assistance and education they need, such as attending workshops or requesting help from experts or mentors. 
The Biden-Harris Administration will continue to build on successes in 2024, and we’re excited to continue to tirelessly and creatively improve how USDA delivers its critical conservation programs. 
 
Terry Cosby is the Chief of USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. He can be reached at terry.cosby@usda.gov.  
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