MANKATO, Minn. — U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack picked Minnesota to announce the next round of historic USDA investments. 

Vilsack announced on Wednesday that USDA is investing $1.5 billion in 2024 to support conservation initiatives.

The latest investment, made available through the Farm Bill and the Inflation Reduction Act, will support projects through the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Regional Conservation Partnership Program, which prioritizes climate-smart agriculture, urban agriculture, conservation, and environmental justice.

The funding will also allow the NRCS to streamline and simplify RCPP and improve processes and implementation. USDA is accepting project proposals now through July 2 through the
RCPP portal.
NRCS will be hosting four webinars to provide additional information. 

Changing U.S. agriculture

Vilsack mapped out the USDA’s climate-smart investments thus far on a whiteboard to a room of farmers and representatives from the state’s ag industry inside the Ostrander Auditorium in Mankato State University’s student union. 

“It’s appropriate for me to announce this here, in large part because you have been such a good steward of the land and water, and I think have always been a leader nationally in this effort,” he said of Minnesota. “I’ve been in Minnesota a couple of times where I’ve given this whiteboard speech, and I think it’s important for me to come back periodically and say, OK, this is what we said we were going to do, and this is what we’ve done.”

United States Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Minnesota Agriculture Commissioner Thom Petersen on April, 3, 2024 in Mankato, Minn.

Noah Fish / Agweek

He described the report left behind by Bob Bergland, U.S. agriculture secretary under President Jimmy Carter, who was from Minnesota, when he left office in 1981.

“He looked back at the changes that were made in the 1970s in farm policy in this country, and he expressed some concerns about the changes,” Vilsack said. “We had moved away from a Depression-era supply management system to a more market-oriented system in which farmers were encouraged to plant fence row to fence row.”

Vilsack went on to say that American farmers and producers became the best in the world, and “extraordinarily productive.”

“But (Bergland) was concerned about this notion of focusing solely and completely on productivity, without also keeping an eye on the profitability of farming, and he was concerned that it would result in larger and larger farms and fewer farmers,” he said. “As I read this report, it occurred to me to take a look at whether or not his prediction of potentially fewer farms was borne out. Well, it turns out it was, and since he wrote that report, we’ve lost 544,970 farms in the United States of America.”

That’s around the current number of combined farms in Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, Oklahoma and Missouri, Vilsack said. 

The push toward a more climate-smart agriculture industry under the Biden-Harris administration is not only meant to help farmers, ranchers and forest landowners adopt and expand conservation strategies, but also to help save farmers money, and create new revenue streams and increase productivity.  

The investments through the Inflation Reduction Act and Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities that USDA are estimated to support over 180,000 farms and over 225 million acres in the next five years, according to the agency. 

“These are our new markets. These are better markets, and they’re also farmer-owned, and this is a better view,” Vilsack said. “Now all of a sudden, what you have is an entire system that’s designed to help small and mid-sized owners; producers have multiple ways to make more money with better value, with what they grow and raise; and to have additional revenue sources. We think this is a better option than the notion of getting bigger and bigger.”

Dan Glessing, president of the Minnesota Farm Bureau, said the latest investment means more opportunities for more producers. 

“As you go through that whole whiteboard, there’s opportunities for all types of production, and it’s all voluntary and incentive-based,” he said. “At the end of the day, what’s right for one farm isn’t going to be right for another farm, but everybody can pick and choose and really have some opportunities to stay on the farm, and that’s exactly what we’re all about.”

What is RCPP?

RCPP is a partner-driven approach to conservation that funds solutions to natural resource challenges on agricultural land. In November 2023, NRCS announced more than $1 billion for 81 RCPP projects across the country. Since 2020, NRCS has invested a total of $1.8 billion in 256 RCPP projects covering 49 states and territories. 

Through a concerted effort in 2023 using feedback and expertise from partners, employees, leadership and stakeholders, NRCS identified several improvements to RCPP that the agency has implemented and will continue to implement in the months and years ahead.

“We had unprecedented demand for the Regional Conservation Partnership Program last year, showing the robust interest in conservation from farmers and ranchers,” Vilsack said. “We’re looking forward to seeing what the more streamlined and customer-oriented Regional Conservation Partnership Program can do to get more conservation on the ground in the coming months and years.” 

Two separate funding opportunities were announced on Wednesday: RCPP Classic and RCPP Alternative Funding Arrangements.

RCPP Classic projects are implemented using NRCS contracts and easements with producers, landowners and communities in collaboration with project partners. Through RCPP AFA, the lead partner works directly with agricultural producers to support the development of innovative conservation approaches that would not otherwise be available under RCPP Classic.

NRCS will set aside $100 million for Tribal-led projects to be used between both funding opportunities.



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