USDA announces new conservation finance program

By Catherine Sweeney, Business Writer Published: May 31, 2014

Poor land management practices have harmed Oklahoma landscape, O’Neill said. Over-grazing and over-tilling are some of the worst perpetrators. Invasive species like the red cedar are also harming Oklahoma soil, he said.

Because of the recent drought, water issues have been at the forefront of agriculture and conservation efforts.

Water shortages and poor water quality are complicating livestock watering and irrigation.

Although state projects receive 25 percent of the $400 million, the USDA hasn’t announced how much money Oklahoma will receive, O’Neill said.

Oklahoma’s branch has autonomy over which plans to finance. It is choosing its participants using a ranking system.

“Obviously, the more resources they (the applicants) bring, the more competitive the ranking,” O’Neill said.

National projects, which will receive the remaining 40 percent of funds, require the affected area to cover multiple states. The priorities for national conservation programs are more vague, focusing on water quality and quantity, endangered species, soil health and air quality.

This program combines four existing USDA conservation programs: the Agricultural Water Enhancement Program, Cooperative Conservation Partnership Initiative, the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Initiative and the Great Lakes Basin Program for Soil Erosion.

In the past, the Department of Agriculture worked with farmers, agricultural groups or environmental organizations on an individual basis, funding their projects or offering advice on how to improve conditions in the area.

This program allows the department to work with organizations and individuals in the region while receiving project plans from the participants instead of creating plans for them.

“This is going to be locally driven,” Vilsack said. “Folks on the ground know what they need.”