Agricultural producers have access to a number of federal agencies, programs and resources to help address soil health in their agricultural operations. The USDA, which provides a number of conservation programs and educational resources, addresses soil health through the NRCS and the agency’s Soil Health Division. The division collaborates with states and other partners to provide training and technical leadership to ensure the USDA can provide effective support on the use of soil health assessments and the development and implementation of soil health management systems.
Federally, soil health is addressed mainly through conservation programs, which are largely administered by the USDA. An overview of the department’s most relevant programs:
- The Environmental Quality Incentive Program assists agricultural producers, including farmers, ranchers, and foresters, by providing financial and one-on-one, free technical assistance with integrating conservation practices on agricultural lands. Activities can include improving soil health and reducing soil erosion, among others. Under the federal Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, the program received $8.45 billion in additional funding.
- The Conservation Stewardship Program provides financial aid and free technical assistance to agricultural producers to increase conservation efforts on their lands. The program uses one-on-one communication to identify specific natural resources issues and develop conservation plans to meet producer goals. The program encourages producers to implement certain agricultural practices in their operations by paying them an annual financial incentive. The program recently received $3.5 billion in additional federal funding.
- The Agricultural Conservation Easement Program has been split into two subprograms: Agriculture Land Easements (ALE) and Wetland Reserve Easements (WRE). Both ACEP programs are intended to help private and tribal landowners and certain other entities protect their eligible agricultural and grazing lands by limiting nonagricultural uses. Additionally, ACEP works to conserve, protect, restore and enhance grazing land and wetlands. The program recently received $1.4 billion in additional federal funding.
- The Regional Conservation Partnership Program uses a partner-driven approach to apply conservation funding solutions to natural resource challenges on agricultural land. Conservation-focused activities can include land management, land improvement and land restoration, among others. The program recently received $4.95 billion in additional federal funding.
- The Conservation Technical Assistance Program provides technical assistance to farmers, ranchers and forest landowners. Program activities can include resource assessment, practice design and resource monitoring. The program recently received $1 billion in additional federal funding.
- Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities. According to the USDA, climate-smart commodities are produced using agricultural practices that sequester carbon and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This program offers financial and technical assistance to agricultural producers who voluntarily implement climate-smart production practices; develop markets for and promote the use of climate-smart commodities; and develop innovative and cost-effective methods for addressing GHG reduction. The program delivered $3.1 billion to 141 projects in 2022. Some of these projects address soil health.
- Highly Erodible Lands and Wetlands provisions. The USDA mandates that all entities participating in or receiving a grant from one of its programs must abide by the department’s Highly Erodible Lands and Wetlands provisions. These provisions prevent agricultural producers from farming on converted wetlands, producing an agricultural commodity on highly erodible land without an adequate conservation system, or converting a wetland for farming.
In addition to the above programs, agricultural producers can use other USDA resources to address soil health:
- National Resources Inventory. This statistical survey tracks land use, natural resource conditions and other trends on U.S. non-federal lands. The NRI is intended to help protect, restore and enhance lands, which it does by publishing collected information on the status, condition and trends of land, soil, water and other resources.
- Web Soil Survey. This survey provides important soil information and other data to assist entities with land-use and management decisions.
Soil Health in the Community
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers opportunities for communities to access federal support for local soil health assessments. Soil Screening, Health, Outreach, and Partnership (soilSHOP) events provide community members with free lead screening of soil gathered from local gardens and outdoor play spaces. SoilSHOP events aim to increase community health awareness with testing results and strategies to reduce exposure to harmful contaminants. CDC support on contaminants can be a helpful resource, given the continued interest in urban agriculture and community revitalization.
While federal programs help agriculture producers address soil health directly, federal legislation authorizes and provides the funding for these programs and can often be used to supplement existing programs. Outlined below are some recent federal measures addressing soil health:
The farm bill, first enacted in the 1930s as a part of the New Deal, is omnibus legislation that typically is revised and renewed by Congress and signed by the president every five years. In modern history, the farm bill has been the primary source of soil health legislation. The 2018 Farm Bill (Public Law (P.L.) 115-334) contained several provisions that addressed soil health, including increasing incentives for conservation practices and improving access to soil health support for beginning and socially disadvantaged producers. Although draft language has not yet been released for the 2023 Farm Bill, it is likely that soil health will be addressed, especially given the expected increased focus on and expansion of conservation and climate efforts. For more information about the farm bill generally, see NCSL’s Field to Table: A Farm Bill Primer.
The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 (P.L. 117-169) was a significant piece of legislation that addressed a number of key domestic issues through federal investments. Notably, the act encouraged energy investments in rural areas, provided funding to incentivize federally supported farming practices, and helped make communities more resilient to extreme weather. These investments included an increase in funding for several USDA conservation programs, including the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, Conservation Stewardship Program, Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, Regional Conservation Partnership Program, and Conservation Technical Assistance Program, all of which indirectly address soil health. The act specifically addressed soil health by authorizing $300 million for actions that improve soil carbon, reduce nitrogen losses or address agriculture-related greenhouse gases. Overall, the act provided approximately $19.5 billion in additional investments.
The 118th Congress has introduced a number of bills that address soil health, including the Agriculture Innovation Act of 2023 in the Senate (S 98) and the Water Quality and Environmental Innovation Act in the House (HR 873). Neither of these bills, nor the other relevant legislation introduced during this session, has been voted on by either chamber. A complete list of soil health legislation introduced this session can be found here.