DAVIS, Calif., Dec. 21, 2020 – The USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) continued its conservation work across California despite a tough 2020 marked with a pandemic and natural disasters. The agency helped farmers, ranchers and forest landowners implement conservation practices on their working lands, which help conserve natural resources such as soil, water, and wildlife as well as boost producers’ bottom lines. Additionally, NRCS launched new online tools that makes it easier for our customers to do business with us in this new virtual environment.

“With our partners, NRCS helps people help the land in the good times and the challenging times,” said NRCS State Conservationist Carlos Suarez. “I have heard stories from across California, where our team is often using innovative means to help producers meet their conservation and business goals. Additionally, we continued our efforts to streamline program delivery and to work with our USDA counterparts to best serve the needs of our customers.”

Key California highlights from 2020 include:

Conservation Delivery amid Pandemic: NRCS continued to deliver services during the COVID-19 pandemic using social distance guidelines, phone and online tools. This year, NRCS worked with producers and communities to:

  • Develop more than 1,930 conservation plans.
  • Co-invest $94 million through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) to put conservation practices on 407,000  acres, as well as $8 million through the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) to put conservation enhancements on 40,000  acres.
  • Enroll more than 18 new easements, totaling 30,000 acres, into the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP).
  • Enter into 9 agreements with local sponsors to cooperatively implement emergency recovery measures through the Emergency Watershed Protection Program (EWP) and obligated more than $1.9 million in EWP funds in FY 2020.

Disaster Recovery Assistance: Wildfires and drought had significant impacts on agricultural operations statewide. NRCS coordinated closely with USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) to deliver disaster assistance programs. EQIP-funded conservation practices that protect land from erosion, support disaster recovery, and help mitigate loss from future natural disasters. NRCS also partners with communities and local levels of government to aid disaster recovery through the EWP program for the many fires that occurred during the Fall of 2020 in California.

Soil Health: NRCS continued to prioritize adoption of soil health management systems. In fiscal year 2020, NRCS California provided financial assistance to help producers plant cover crops on 5,559 acres and use no-till on 637 acres. California producers also put 39,065 acres into prescribed grazing, a grazing efficiency and soil health practice on California’s rangelands; 21,541 feet of hedgerows, to support carbon sequestration and pollinators; 2,728 acres in nutrient management to enhance nutrient cycling and protect water quality; and 1,096 acres in mulching, for good soil moisture retention, reducing soil erosion, and adding organic matter to the soil. Additionally, NRCS rolled out a new Soil Health Toolbox, which offered useful tools to demonstrate how soil functions and to help guide management decisions that will improve soil health with NRCS conservation practices.

Water Quality: NRCS continued its investments in targeted water quality initiatives, which increase the return on investment in terms of improving water quality in priority waterways. NRCS will continue its work through the National Water Quality Initiative in 17 California priority watersheds for fiscal year 2021. Additional funding was announced for 8 California WaterSmart project areas in partnership with the U.S. Department of Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation.

Wildlife Habitat: Farmers, ranchers, forest landowners, and Tribal Nations across California have continued their work on managing for habitat on working lands. Producers are making a difference for wildlife, including terrestrial and aquatic species. Key work continues on monarch recovery, tri-colored blackbirds, sage grouse, and southwestern willow flycatcher. In addition, NRCS California is actively working with tribes on incorporating Traditional Ecological Knowledge into our conservation planning process and practices. We recognize that tribal land management for traditional foods and fibers is “agriculture” and that there is much to be learned from California’s first people. 

Online Tools and Streamlining Paperwork with the Agency: NRCS and the Farm Production and Conservation (FPAC) Business Center rolled out a new decision tool this year for producers on farmers.gov. The Conservation Concerns Tool enables landowners to learn about conservation concerns that might impact their agricultural operations, then search for solutions targeted to fit their business needs. Producers can also find a new video series, called Conservation at Work, that spotlights how producers are using key conservation practices including “irrigation water management” to ensure water efficiency; “forage and biomass planting” to create additional feed for livestock; and “water and sediment control basin” to manage runoff and reduce erosion. In addition to finding information, producers can also log into farmers.gov to manage their conservation business online. During the past year, key functions from NRCS’s Conservation Client Gateway were moved to the farmers.gov portal to provide one place where producers can manage all of their USDA business online.

Partnerships and Innovation: The Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) and Conservation Innovation Grants (CIG) Program continued to rally partners to help increase the reach of conservation and support the development of new tools, approaches, practices and technologies to further natural resource conservation on private lands. NRCS just closed the application period for RCPP, with plans to invest over $15 million in projects that improve California’s water quality, combat drought, enhance soil health, support wildlife habitat, and protect agricultural viability. Including 2 key target areas in California with American Farmland Trust and California Rice Commission.  Additionally, NRCS invested $3.5 million through RCPP Alternative Funding Arrangements, where partners manage projects and the associated relationships with producers and landowners directly. In October, NRCS awarded more than $750,000 in grants to 6 state level CIG projects.

2018 Farm Bill Implementation: NRCS made tremendous strides in implementing the 2018 Farm Bill in the past year. NRCS published final rules for EQIP and CSP this fall and is preparing to publish final rules for ACEP and RCPP. The 2018 Farm Bill also required review of all conservation practices to seek opportunities to increase flexibility and incorporate new technologies. NRCS completed and published updates to the set of National Conservation Practice Standards, California has adopted 162 of the 169 nationally available standards for use within the State. New interim conservation practices have been established to allow California farmers to address resource concerns in ways that the Agency had not previously standardized and for which NRCS will soon be able to provide funding. These include 2 new options for eligible farmers to participate, including groundwater recharge and soil carbon amendments.

Outreach: Even in the trying times presented by the pandemic, NRCS California continued to reach out to underserved farmers—be they Latino, Asian, Black, women, veterans, Native American, LGBTQ, small-scale or beginning. The agency celebrated its 6th annual Latino Farmer Conference in December with participation from 15 other states and 3 other countries.

NRCS is a part of the Farm Production and Conservation (FPAC) mission area at USDA. Other 2020 highlights can be found here.

All USDA Service Centers are open for business, including those that restrict in-person visits or require appointments. All Service Center visitors wishing to conduct business with FSA, NRCS or any other Service Center agency should call ahead and schedule an appointment. Service Centers that are open for appointments will pre-screen visitors based on health concerns or recent travel, and visitors must adhere to social distancing guidelines. Visitors are also required to wear a face covering during their appointment. Our program delivery staff will continue to work with our producers by phone, email and using online tools. More information can be found at farmers.gov/coronavirus.