Losing Ground: Why specialty crop farmers are steadily falling behind in their access to and benefit from federal conservation programs and what can be done about it


Strawberry GrowersIf one could track the difference between the amount of financial assistance received by major crop and livestock producers since the passage of the 2002 Farm Bill and the financial assistance received by specialty crop producers, the discrepancy would likely be staggering. Certainly there have been significant examples of specialty crop participation in conservation in North Carolina, California, Michigan and other states, but the relative amount of financial assistance has been marginal and the successes in one growing region have not generally been transferable to other areas. As a result, while the amount of money has increased the proportional share that is functionally available to specialty crop producers has shrunk since 2002.

The paper outlines the basic issues and offers solutions to this growing discrepancy. The solutions include both establishing a commitment by USDA leadership and the institution of policies that address the problems encountered by specialty crop producers. If acted upon, these proposals offer the means for increasing the equity in conservation programs and for advancing resource conservation by a large and progressive segment of agriculture. In addition, these proposals have relevance to other groups of farmers who have been underserved by conservation programs including small and limited resource farmers, organic and beginning farmers.

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There are a number of circumstances that effectively limit meaningful access by specialty crop producers, who, by and large, have not typically participated in federal conservation programs.

Some of these are:

  • Growers have little or no knowledge of program opportunities, benefits, and procedures and do not receive timely information about them
  • Transaction costs in applying for growers who have such little experience are significant since the learning curve is steep and their likelihood of success is often minimal
  • Cost share rates for practices appropriate for specialty crops are either insufficient or non-existent
  • Knowledge of the range practices is extremely limited so that growers’ applications fail to rank high enough for their applications to be approved
  • Very few growers have conservation plans
  • Supporting institutions such as Cooperative Extension or land grant staff who work with specialty crops have little or no knowledge of conservation programs
  • There is often no effective access to technical assistance for the implementation of these practices: TSPs are rarely a realistic option

For NRCS staff, there are parallel circumstances that have limited their ability to work extensively with specialty crop producers:

  • NRCS typically has little familiarity with the production systems
  • There are minimal working relationships between NRCS staff and specialty crop producers
  • NRCS lacks technical familiarity or expertise with specialty crop practices
  • Programs and cost share are not well-matched to specialty crop circumstances
  • Working with specialty crop producers is time-consuming and often complex, requiring new planning and evaluation

The consequences of these issues are lack of equitable access to conservation programs and dissatisfaction among growers, missed conservation opportunities, stress on NRCS staff and constrained ability to deliver quality conservation practices on the ground. The net result of these circumstances is that specialty crop producers or other growers who are not familiar with conservation programs have very limited opportunities to participate.


In general, the solutions to these endemic issues involve providing the outreach, education, technical assistance and conservation planning assistance that make participation in conservation programs possible. Implementing the solutions will necessitate both leadership by NRCS/HQ and the implementation of specific steps within the conservation programs.

Leadership — Direct the Secretary to assess the current involvement of specialty crops and develop a plan to improve access and participation six months from enactment – assessment should involve specialty crop representatives and NRCS staff – plan should be circulated for comment and then implemented.

Outreach — The Secretary could be directed to allocate a portion of Conservation Innovation Grants in each state to provide outreach for specialty crop producers on EQIP, providing information on procedures, options, and basic conservation. Funds would be available to universities or private organizations but would need to be coordinated with existing specialty crop organizations.

Technical Assistance — There needs to be more effective options for technical assistance. The TSP option is woefully ineffective for specialty crops. The Secretary needs to be directed to establish sufficient technical assistance options, such as cooperative agreements with other agencies and private organizations, to provide technical assistance. In addition, the Secretary could increase the percentage of EQIP dollars that could be allocated to TA based on the prevalence or interest among specialty crop producers in participating in EQIP. Those funds would be designated for use with those growers.

Education — In the Research Title, Congress could establish a Conservation Education Program designed to develop education programs at the state level for Extension and University staff on the basics of resource conservation and the conservation programs. That program would then be delivered to specialty crop producers in conjunction with outreach programs.

Conservation planning — This is basically a resource issue - the amount that Congress appropriates to Conservation Technical Assistance needs to be increased as recommended by NACD. In addition, the Secretary could be directed to allocate a specific amount of dollars to the development of conservation plans for specialty crop producers.

Adopted as a set of provisions these options would have a significant impact on the access to conservation programs by specialty crop and, if extended, to other underserved producers.

Download the CAP White Paper regarding "How a Lack of Conservation Planning and Technical Assistance is Limiting the Ability of Small Farmers and Specialty Crop Producers to Participate in Federal Conservation Programs" (PDF Format)

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