Federal Conservation Programs

Overview

There are many federal government programs offering financial and technical assistance to farmers, and many of these are available to encourage beginning farmers and sustainable practices. These federal government programs can help farmers address land access issues in a variety of ways. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), not surprisingly, is the main provider of financial and technical assistance to farmers.

The USDA Farm Services Agency (FSA) and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) are the key agencies under the USDA that provide farmers with technical and financial assistance via farm programs. Financial resources available to farmers who meet a farm program’s eligibility requirements include loans, cost share to install conservation practices, and rental or other type of direct payments to protect natural resources on agricultural, farm, and forest land.

Farmer Spotlight:

Wahl Ranch

Photo Credit: Lois Miller

The Wahl family has been raising sheep and cattle in Oregon since 1874. Their 2,000-acre ranching operation includes timber-producing forests, ponds, riparian buffer vegetation, and wetland habitats. Conservation is a family tradition for the Wahls, who believe in protecting the resources of the ranching operation for future generations.

The Wahls have enrolled in various federal USDA conservation programs over the years, including the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, the Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program, and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. As the family continues sorting out how to pass the ranching operation to the fifth generation, conservation conversations will be a key part of the transition. Read more about the Wahl Ranch here.

The Farm Bill

Much of the assistance provided to farmers through USDA agencies is funded through the Farm Bill. The Farm Bill is a large, complex piece of legislation addressing agriculture and a host of other areas, and is passed by Congress every four to five years. Each year, the Farm Bill provides hundreds of millions of dollars in assistance to eligible farmers.

Although the programs funded may change from one Farm Bill to the next, the kinds of assistance – cost-share, loans, etc. – generally stay the same. Importantly, recent Farm Bills have recognized the unmet needs of new, beginning, and/or socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers and have targeted resources to those groups.

Resources to Help Farmers Navigate Farm Programs

Farm Bill programs can be complicated to navigate. Fortunately, there are existing resources to help farmers and food producers understand and access these programs. For example, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) is a well-known organization based in Washington, D.C., with longstanding expertise in helping farmers access farm programs. NSAC focuses on helping sustainable and diversified farm operations, and also provides information related to farm programs for beginning and minority farmers.

NSAC has developed a guide for farmers that explains key Farm Bill programs, called the Grassroots Guide to Federal Farm and Food Programs. In addition, NSAC also provides this helpful chart of food- and farm-related programs, which summarizes who is eligible to apply or sign up for each program.

Additional farm program explainer resources are listed at the bottom of this page.

Get to Know Local USDA Folks

Another way to get help with farm programs is to get to know the USDA staff at your local USDA Service Center. The Farm Service Agency (FSA) and Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) staff these Service Centers and help farmers, food producers, and rural businesses understand USDA farm programs, including eligibility, program requirements, and how to sign up or enroll in a program.

USDA provides a directory of local Service Centers by state and county. To access the directory, click here.

Keep in Mind

In determining whether to apply for enrollment in a USDA program, important considerations include 1) whether a program furthers your own farming goals and 2) whether you will be able to meet program requirements. For example, some programs require a producer to maintain conservation practices installed on farmland using federal funding for a specific period of years.

Additionally, farmers should keep in mind that the farm program application process takes time, energy, and patience. However, the resources available below and your local USDA office should be able to help you create a successful application and access resources to help your farm operation grow and thrive.

How an Attorney Can Help

The Attorney’s Role

It’s not an attorney’s job to make decisions for farmers or to set farm transfer goals. Instead, attorneys can provide information about pros and cons of different options, advice about what is common versus unusual, fair versus unfair, etc. Attorneys can help farmers understand the universe of possible farm transfer goals and help narrow down individual options so that farmers can make final decisions.

How An Attorney Can Help With Federal Conservation Programs

  • Understand which federal government farm programs you might qualify for under USDA regulations.
  • Prepare an application or collect supporting information required for a federal farm program application (although farmers can alternatively seek help from a farm organization or USDA staff).
  • Decide how federal farm programs could be used in combination with other legal tools.
  • Appeal an adverse decision by the government if you are turned down for a federal farm program for improper reasons.

Additional Resources

Related Legal Tools

Veterans Benefits
Financial and educational support for veterans who want to become farmers.
Collaborative Farming
Farmers can pool resources for mutual benefit.
Land Trusts
Sell or donate conservation easements and protect farmland.