The USDA Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) was created to help small and mid-size farmers be good stewards of the environment. Over time, as larger farms became eligible, unintended consequences sprung up.
EQIP was created to help low-income farmers
EQIP was originally in 1996 to support low-income farmers in implementing conversation practices, since they otherwise may have been financially inaccessible. However, over the years EQIP has increasingly become a program to support large-scale, industrial farms rather than disadvantaged farmers.
Then EQIP was hijacked by large agribusinesses
This transition in EQIP took place for a variety of reasons, a central reason being the practice of contracting. Poultry and livestock producers (distributors, packers, and dealers) use smaller farms to raise animals and these farms fall below EQIP’s eligibility threshold of $900,000 in annual adjusted gross income 1. Instead of large corporations financing their own conservation efforts to mitigate negative environmental impacts, they’re now able to use EQIP as a form of subsidy and bypass responsibility for sustainability improvements.
Next, lawmakers altered the farm bill to hide EQIP payments
The 2002 Farm Bill became law with new language that encouraged a lack of transparency in how funding was used. A section of the bill titled “Privacy of personal information relating to natural resources conservation programs” prohibits USDA from releasing certain information about EQIP contracts, despite Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests being filed.
Although legal analysts believe that this clause technically grants the USDA the ability to release information about individual payment amounts and the identity of recipients, specific information about what is being paid for is left out3.
EQIP funds can now be used to expand CAFO operations
The 2002 and 2008 Farm Bills have been criticized by family farm and conservation organizations as containing loopholes to allow for industrial operations to capitalize on infrastructure expansion, which is outside the scope of the program’s original intent. An example of this can be found in Minnesota. EQIP policy in the state has seen applicants expand operations by up to 25% while still being eligible for funding under the program. This means that a 5,000 pig operation could expand by an additional 1,250 hogs and still be eligible4.
There is a strong possibility that EQIP funds are subsidizing the expansion of already large operations, concentrating even more animals and environmental pollution in one area.
To our knowledge, NRCS has not even initiated an internal program to track or monitor the impact of EQIP funding on the expansion of industrial operations or to measure the actual environmental outcomes of waste-related payments. Initiating such a process is particularly critical in light of the findings presented here, which suggest that EQIP may be subsidizing a polluting system of livestock productionStarmer, 2008, p. 20 (inmotionmagazine.com/ra08/EQIP_report_1208.pdf3)
For some smaller producers, EQIP funds become burdensome
A Michigan dairy farmer working with AFA recently said,
“We did a $250,000 debt share with USDA via the EQIP program to stop silage leaking into the creek. The next five years were bad and we felt ourselves spiraling downward. It was just one more nail in the coffin. Now we have a significant amount of debt from trying to keep the farm afloat for five years, while we were going backwards the entire time.”Michigan Dairy Farmers lobbying with AFA
This farmer was encouraged to pursue expensive conservation measures to keep their dairy herd. They took on debt to do the project, but in the end, lost the herd anyway.
Suggestion #1: Revert EQIP to its original purpose
If the NRCS began publicly tracking operation sizes in its reporting and evaluation of the EQIP program, we could determine the extent that EQIP may be subsidizing industrial farms in expanding operations and thus increasing overall environmental pollution.
Suggestion #2: Make Farm Mobility a valid aim of EQIP
If USDA programs offered options for farm mobility, farmers could transition what they grow as a conservation measure. Instead of expanding operations, farmers could diversify into eco-friendly, food-grade crop production.
AFA is lobbying to close this loophole with EQIP, so there is transparency in the environmental impact of EQIP funds and so corporations are no longer subsidized to expand environmentally damaging practices.