Making EQIP Live up to its Name

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It would be a wise for members of the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee to keep farmers like Brad and Leslea Hodgson in mind as they hammer out the final version of the 2007 Farm Bill during the next several weeks. A certain program called the Environmental Quality Incentives Program was tailor-made for farmers like the Hodgsons. Unfortunately, the program, called EQIP for short, has been perverted to the point where it’s become a cash cow for environmentally disastrous factory livestock operations. It doesn’t have to be that way, and calls to two Minnesota members of the Senate Ag Committee during the next month could make EQIP live up to its name as an “environmental” program.

Here’s how EQIP was meant to be used when it was first created in the 1996 Farm Bill: When the Hodgsons bought a broken-down farm a quarter-mile from southeast Minnesota’s Root River in early 1998, they knew it would need a lot of work before they realized their dream of being grass-based beef producers. The house was a mess and the rest of the farmstead was a hodgepodge of rusty fencing and small, slumping buildings, one of which was mounted on old herbicide containers.

Showplace Acres it wasn’t.

Even basic fencing was either lacking, or half buried in the neglected fields. “You would grab a piece of wire fence sticking out of the ground and it might not stop pulling up until you get to the north end of the farm,” Brad says, only half joking.

The Hodgsons were beginning farmers and were short on cash. They received a head start by taking the Land Stewardship Project’s Farm Beginnings course. They also got their cattle herd started when they qualified for a no-interest livestock loan as Farm Beginnings graduates. But revamping a decrepit farm takes more than training and livestock—it requires money.

Despite the economic obstacles, over the past few years the Hodgsons have managed to seed down one small field at a time, slowly converting the farm’s row-cropped acres into a series of rotationally grazed grass paddocks. One of the federal government programs that helped jumpstart their renovation was EQIP. Through EQIP, they received $4,700 in cost-share funds to erect fencing and put in water lines. The reason the Hodgsons qualified for EQIP is because its cost-share funds would allow them to deal with an environmental concern on their farm—soil erosion in this case—by installing a new production system such as managed rotational grazing. (All 100 acres of their farm is classified as “highly erodible” by the USDA.)

And rotational grazing, in turn, would give them the economic incentive to maintain perennial cover in an environmentally sensitive part of the Root River watershed. I’ve visited the Hodgson farm, and sure enough, their rolling hills are covered with verdant grass, which is grazed by a herd of Black Galloways. Little soil or runoff of any kind leaves their farm. That’s because land that used to be covered a few months out of the year with corn and soybeans is now protected year-round by grass.

I called the Hodgsons last week to see how they had weathered the recent catastrophic flooding in southeast Minnesota. Brad said they were far enough upstream on the Root that they had not experienced severe damage. But they did get an unprecedented amount of rain in a short amount of time. He was pleased that the pastured fields held up well against the downpour.

“The water running off my place was clear,” he told me. “So my soil isn’t washing onto somebody else’s place. If we had row crops, we’d be bringing in Cats to fill in the gullies. I’ve seen gullies on row-cropped land even when we didn’t get this much rain.”

Recently, the USDA further recognized the environmental benefits of such a system when it allowed the Hodgsons to enroll in the Conservation Security Program (CSP). The couple qualified for Tier 3, the highest CSP level a farmer can attain, and a sign that their operation is extremely friendly to the environment. CSP pays farmers for using systems that protect and enhance the environment. Through CSP, the Hodgsons are receiving USDA funds through a 10-year contract. That money will help them further establish their managed rotational grazing system.

Now, here’s how EQIP money is being used to make the programs very name a misnomer: Changes in the 2002 Farm Bill allow new and expanding factory farms to obtain up to a whopping $450,000 in EQIP funds to build huge manure storage and handling facilities in the name of “conservation.” To put that $450,000 in context, I recently called the Minnesota office of the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, which administers EQIP. According to staff there, during the 2007 fiscal year the average EQIP contract in Minnesota was around $15,000; the largest one was for $284,000. Factory farms have been using EQIP as an expansion tool to build multi-million gallon liquid manure facilities that engineering and environmental experts are increasingly criticizing as inherently flawed.

The House’s version of the 2007 Farm Bill, which was passed in July, established a $60,000 per contract payment limit for EQIP, which is a change in the right direction. As the Hodgsons’ example shows, EQIP has great potential to help the environment in an economically efficient manner. Instead of sinking hundreds of thousands of dollars into a handful of pollution-prone liquid manure lagoons, why not spread that money amongst many smaller farms, helping them establish systems that are proven to be environmental winners?

Ironically, the House version of the Farm Bill cuts CSP by $4.8 billion (44 percent of its total budget) over the next decade, while boosting funding for EQIP 42 percent. Studies conducted by the Land Stewardship Project and other Midwestern farm groups show that CSP is proving to be an engine of conservation in farm country. The Hodgsons are not an isolated example. EQIP can be a better agro-environmental tool if reformed with a stronger payment limit, so more farmers can utilize the good aspects of this program. But if not, it remains a war chest for factory livestock operations to continue to expand.

What you can do
Contact Minnesota Senators Norm Coleman and Amy Klobuchar and tell them the 2007 Farm Bill should not subsidize factory farms through programs like EQIP. Tell them we need a $100,000 payment limit on the Environmental Quality Incentives Program in the 2007 Farm Bill. The current $450,000 level is way too high. It’s wrong that factory farms can get this money to build and expand. Taxpayers should not subsidize the environmental problems factory farms create. With a $100,000 cap, more farmers will be able to implement conservation practices and utilize the good aspects of this program.

Senators should also get the message that the Farm Bill must dedicate additional resources to the Conservation Security Program. CSP supports conservation results (actual measurable outcomes) while encouraging farmers to do more. We need both a better functioning EQIP and a strengthened CSP in the 2007 Farm Bill.

Coleman can be contacted at 202-224-5461; Klobuchar at 202-224-3244.

Hearing from citizens in September and October will be critical. For more information on how to make your voice heard in the Farm Bill debate, check the Land Stewardship Project’s federal policy page, or contact LSP’s Adam Warthesen at; 612-722-6377.

This is a prime opportunity for our Senators to make the Environmental Quality Incentives Program not just another clever name with a dirty little secret.

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