Conservation in the United States

The United States


Congress authorized the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) in the 1996 farm bill, also known as the Federal Agriculture Improvement and Reform Act. Funding for the program grew dramatically after 2002. Congress, however, has funded the program well below its authorized level every year. In 2016, for example, Congress funded EQIP at $1.3 billion, more than $300 million less than the funding authorized in the 2014 farm bill.

EQIP is managed by U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service, and provides money and technical help to agricultural producers as they plan and implement conservation practices on agricultural land and non-industrial private forestland.

A producer enters into a contract if he or she is selected to participate in a program that specifies conservation practices to be implemented. Contracts can be as long as 10 years, but most are much shorter. Payments are made to the producer in the fiscal year a specified practice is executed.

About the Data

EWG’s Conservation Database reports payments made to program participants in the fiscal year in which a practice was implemented to earn the payment. EQIP payments are directly tied to a specific conservation practice. The payment rate for a particular practice can vary by state.

The payment data in the database will not match funding information provided by NRCS or the levels authorized by Congress in a particular fiscal year for two reasons. First, NRCS reports “obligations” not payments made in a fiscal year. When a producer signs an EQIP contract NRCS sets aside or “obligates” all of the money needed for payments over the length of contract. Obligations are not the same as the actual payments made to a producer. Second, some portion of EQIP funding is used to pay for the technical help producers need to implement the funded practices. That funding goes to NRCS staff or private sector consultants, not to the producer. Our data only reports payments made directly to producers.

Payments made to producers are determined by a “payment rate” that is specific to each eligible conservation practice. This direct connection between payments and practices simplified the organization of the EQIP data, despite the large amount of information involved. We are grateful to the NRCS staff who helped us understand the structure and meaning of the data.

We used the following data, secured through Freedom of Information Act requests, to structure the EQIP data presented in the database:

  • Contract ID
  • Cost-share earned by contract
  • Cost-share earned by practice
  • NRCS practice code and name
  • County
  • Fiscal year during which cost-share payment was made

We only included data from contract records with dates at which the implementation of the specified practices was certified and the status of the contracts were either active or completed. Individual practices – contract items – were included only if the records included dates certified, the amounts of payment earned and practice descriptions. We also only included data from contracts with a total payment of $1,000 or more. The number of contracts and practices that didn’t meet these criteria were a tiny fraction of total contracts and total spending.

EWG Interpretations

In most cases, the database simply presents the data as we received them from NRCS. In two cases, we provide the user with interpretations of the data that we hope make the data more meaningful.

Practice Class, Suite and Type

Of individual conservation practices, 350 have earned payments in EQIP. We organized those practices into a taxonomy of nested categories to make it easier for database users to use the data and drill down to their preferred level of detail.

The highest overarching category is the Practice Class. All practices – such as nutrient management, grazing management and integrated pest management – that improve the management of a farm or ranch operation are included in the Farm, Ranch and Land Management Practice Suite. Practices that pay farmers to build a structure like a manure storage unit, or buy equipment such as irrigation sprinklers or piping, are included in the Structures, Equipment and Facilities Practice Class.

Searching by Practice Suite and Type provides more specific information on the money spent in those categories, and ultimately on one of the 350 individual practices for which payments have been made. This practice taxonomy was created solely by EWG using practice descriptions and job sheets available on the NRCS website.

Resource Concerns and Causes of Impairment

EWG analyzed the payment and practice data to estimate what environmental outcomes the program sought. NRCS maintains a list of so-called “resource concerns” that include broad categories of natural resource and environmental issues such as Water, Soil and Air Quality. NRCS also specifies dozens of specific causes for impairment of resource concerns such as Water Quality – Nutrients in Surface Water, and Air Quality – Emissions of Greenhouse Gases or Soil Quality – Organic Matter Depletion. The definition of resource concerns and causes have changed over time and can differ slightly between programs.

NRCS uses the Conservation Practice Physical Effects (CPPE) matrix to evaluate which particular practices affect resource concerns and causes. A practice is given a score ranging from -5 to +5 for each resource concern and cause NRCS concludes that it affects. A negative score means the practice has a harmful effect on that particular resource concern or cause. A positive score means the practice helps improve the condition of a particular resource by lessening one or more causes of impairment. A single practice often improves more than one resource concern and addresses multiple causes of impairment.

EWG used the CPPE scores and practice information to allocate payments to each resource concern and cause as an indication of the environment outcomes EQIP has been addressing. We assembled all CPPE scores for all practices in an EQIP contract. Total payments to that contract were then allocated to each resource concern and cause based on the percentage of total contract CPPE scores contributed by each resource concern or cause.

A simple example: The practices in an EQIP contract earned a total of 10 CPPE points. Five of those points were for improving Water Quality and the other five were for improving Air Quality. The total payments made for all practices in that contract were $5,000. EWG then allocated $2,500 to Water Quality and $2,500 to Air Quality.


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