On-The-Ground Conservation Program
- 3/5/2021 legislation filed
- 4/19/2021 passed the Texas Senate unanimously 31-0
- 5/6/2021 passed the House by a vote of 143-1
- 5/12/2021 transmitted to the governor
- 5/24/2021 signed by Governor Abbott
This act creates the On-The-Ground Conservation Program, administered by the State Soil and Water Conservation Board. The board may designate certain conservation measures to receive priority funding under the program, including soil health improvements, erosion control and carbon sequestration. The board is authorized to secure outside funding to provide cost-share assistance, grants, and technical assistance to local landowners on a voluntary basis.
Soil Health Definition:
The bill defines “Soil health characteristics” as “the physical, chemical, and biological characteristics of soil for optimal production, including lower bulk density, good gas exchange, lower surface temperature during growing season, high cation exchange capacity, high soil organic matter, and active soil microorganisms.”
The goal of the program is “to maximize public benefits by facilitating priority conservation measures and other soil and water conservation land improvement measures by landowners and operators in this state.”
Program Required Measurements:
No measurements are specified, but the State Soil and Water Conservation Board is authorized to “establish standards and specifications” in order to certify that conservation measures funded under the program have been implemented.
The bill does not require an appropriation from the state. In order to fund the program, the board is authorized to receive state and/or federal funding, as well as gifts and donations from private donors.
The program may provide funding for “(1) technical assistance; (2) cost-share assistance; (3) direct grants; and (4) help in obtaining technical assistance, cost-share assistance, and direct grants from other public or private sources.”
Practices eligible for funding:
The act does not specifically define practices eligible for funding, but authorizes the State Soil & Water Conservation Board to prioritize certain conservation practices, including practices that:
“(1) improve soil health characteristics; (2) conserve and manage water resources; (3) prevent and manage flooding; (4) control invasive and nuisance species; (5) improve resilience to weather extremes, climate variability, and natural disasters; (6) protect and enhance native habitats, including the protection of endangered species; (7) mitigate and reduce soil erosion; (8) restore land damaged by development; and (9) sequester carbon to provide environmental benefits.”
The State Soil and Water Conservation Board may develop “rules, forms, and procedures necessary for the administration of the program”.
State Universities & Researchers:
- Texas State University
- University of Texas Rio Grande Valley
- Texas A&M University
- Prairie View A&M University
Agricultural Organizations & Technical Assistance:
- Natural Resources Conservation Service Texas, State Soil Health Specialist Nathan Haile
- The Association of Texas Soil and Water Conservation Districts
Education & Advocacy Groups:
- Farm & Ranch Freedom Alliance
- Texas Organic Farmers & Gardeners Association
- Grow Local South Texas
- GROW North Texas
- Green Gate Farms
- Food Policy Council of San Antonio
- Central Texas Young Farmers Coalition
- Sustainable Food Center
- La Tziranda Farm & Forge
- Texas Local Food & Farm Coalition
- National Center for Appropriate Technology
- Sierra Club, Lone Star Chapter
- Lower Colorado River Authority
- Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association
- Texas Association of Dairymen
- Association of Texas Soil and Water Conservation Districts
- Texas Farm Bureau
- Austin Fibershed
- Dallas Fibershed
- Identifying the right agency to implement the policy is key. You need an agency that is willing to work to receive federal funding and has a lot of trust among farmers that might transition to regenerative. In Texas, the choice fell on the Texas State Soil & Water Conservation Board.
- The Board connects with over 250 conservation districts, making it possible to tap into a pre-existing network and infrastructure to facilitate local implementation in almost every county. Farmers already know these districts that now get the opportunity to bring in new funding and new partnerships.
- A major challenge was to find funding for a new program on the state level at a time when the budget was in the red. Therefore, the policy is built around several federal programs the Board had identified as already available and provides a necessary path to access this existing funding. Once in place, it’s easier to get state appropriations as a match.
- In order to succeed in passing a bipartisan bill it’s imperative to build relationships on both sides of the aisle. Approach people (both legislators and constituents) about what matters to them and find talking points that resonate! Advocates focused heavily on the WATER benefits of soil health: helping farmers survive drought, reducing pressure on aquifers, and reducing the cost of flooding to counties by capturing floods through better soil health.
- Coalition building was critical in order to achieve bipartisan buy-in. Organizations that support local food and agriculture worked to team up with allies in the environmental movement, particularly around water issues, as well as conventional agriculture groups including the Texas Farm Bureau.
- It’s important to place an emphasis on the soil health program being voluntary (the Board has no regulatory authority). This needs to be communicated very clearly right from the start in order to avoid misunderstandings and pre-empt unfounded critique.
- The statute does not include language to install an advisory commission but the agency is in the process of pulling together a stakeholder group. Going forward, follow-through is vital. Proponents of conventional chemical-based agriculture will continue to lobby for the lowest common denominator and attempt to steer funding towards the least amount of changes to current practices. Groups committed to regenerative agriculture have to stay engaged with the agency to support optimal practices and implementation.
- Nonprofits such as the Farm & Ranch Freedom Alliance, Holistic Management International and the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) present an important knowledge base and infrastructure as they are already offering education about regenerative agriculture.
- Next steps: Advocates have already started discussions with the Board and districts. Time and resources will have to be committed to build out the new program, engage with the board and districts, and lobby for state funding going forward, e.g. through appropriation of federal stimulus funds. The goal is to come back in the next legislative session with arguments that show the cost of flooding and drought and make an even stronger case for prevention through improved soil health. Farm & Ranch Freedom Alliance will continue to collaborate with groups (e.g. NCAT Soil for Water) who are working to collect data to support this economic argument.
Newly signed bill makes firm commitment to soil health in Texas, press release by the Farm & Ranch Freedom Alliance
Last updated 6/9/21