What Are Conservation Innovation Grants?

CIGs Explained: How USDA-funded conservation projects and on-farm trials are advancing innovation

What Are Conservation Innovation Grants?

The USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) administers several voluntary conservation programs to help farmers and ranchers conserve and improve natural resources on working agricultural lands. The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) is one of the largest federal sources of technical assistance and financial cost-share helping producers to implement conservation practices that address natural resource concerns, like soil health and water quality, as well as mitigate on-farm greenhouse gas emissions. EQIP payments play an important role incentivizing the adoption of cost-saving, efficient, and environmentally beneficial practices that can reduce the climatic impacts of U.S. agriculture.

In addition to extending payments for conservation improvements, NRCS offers Conservation Innovation Grants (CIGs) to evaluate environmental outcomes of new conservation practices and better accelerate their widespread adoption. This subprogram of EQIP makes available competitive grants to support the development of new agricultural tools, approaches, practices, and technologies that contribute to conservation goals.

Three annual funding opportunities are available under CIG. National and State CIG grants support early-stage development and piloting of new technologies. State CIG grants specifically support projects that focus on state-identified conservation priorities.

CIG’s On-Farm Conservation Innovation Trials are the newest CIG funding opportunity. On-Farm Trial grants fund projects that encourage broader use and assessment of innovative conservation methods in collaboration with farmers.

How do CIG On-Farm Trial grants support innovative conservation methods?

CIG On-Farm Trial grants fund projects that are innovative and examine conservation topics on the ground. Individuals, state and local governments, non-governmental organizations, and federally recognized Native American tribes are eligible to apply. All CIG applicants, including those applying for On-Farm Trial grants, must provide a 1:1 match from non-federal sources.

Implementing a new technology on-farm can be difficult and come with many risks. On-Farm Trial grant awardees can provide technical assistance and payments to producers interested in implementing innovative management systems, technologies, or approaches to their operation.

NRCS requires awardees to conduct environmental and financial impact reports related to their projects. Environmental evaluations must be science-based and determine the value of technologies for improving conservation outcomes. Awardees are also required to conduct economic evaluations over the course of the project, assessing the financial impacts of new or improved conservation methods on producers’ bottom line. Awardees may also choose to conduct a social impact evaluation. This robust set of evaluations ensures CIG projects assess critical financial and environmental factors that could impact the potential for widespread adoption of innovative approaches.

Since the program’s inception, it has funded dozens of On-Farm Trials. These have covered a wide-variety of objectives, including to evaluate impact of cover cropping, reduce greenhouse gas emissions of cattle and fertilizers, assess soil health, and improve water quality.

How do CIG On-Farm Trial grants advance climate-smart agriculture?

Every year, the NRCS seeks to direct funding to high priority concerns through CIG grants. Recently awarded CIG On-Farm Trial grants have supported reducing enteric methane emissions, promoting soil health, and advancing climate-smart agriculture.

On-Farm Trial projects that have contributed to climate adaptation and mitigation include:

  • Reducing Enteric Methane Emissions—In the United States, enteric emissions from cattle account for about 25% of all methane emissions. To manage enteric methane emissions from livestock, better methods of measurement and monitoring are needed. Several CIG projects have supported this effort. For example, a 2021 grant awarded to The Nature Conservancy, aimed to evaluate different feed management strategies to help inform GHG mitigation strategies for cattle and develop protocols for measuring enteric methane emissions. The project combined on-farm trials with interviews from key stakeholders and targeted communications, all in an effort to increase broader adoption of the NRCS Feed Management Practice Standard.

  • Improving Irrigation Efficiency—As climate change continues to threaten agricultural productivity, new and improved technologies can help to improve irrigation efficiency and develop crops that use less water. A recent CIG grant was awarded to UC Davis to partner with almond growers to evaluate climate-smart irrigation methods to improve drought resilience and improve crop fertility. Researchers aimed to evaluate how deep root irrigation and pressure compensated subsurface drip irrigation can save water. They also assessed the benefits and tradeoffs associated with the adoption of a new, perennial cool-season cover crop. The grant will assist in examining the soil health outcomes from these practices.

  • Measuring Carbon Sequestration and Health—More research is needed to ensure that carbon sequestration and soil management efforts are cost effective for producers and address the limitations of carbon sequestration. Several On-farm Trial grants focus on bolstering soil health. For example, in 2019, the Soil and Water Conservation Society received a grant to accelerate the adoption of precision nutrient management and soil health supporting practices across wheat and corn acres in the Midwest. The project aimed to improve management of conservation systems to improve farm profitability and demonstrate the role agricultural retailer cooperatives can play in scaling the use of crop management technology.

As demonstrated by these examples, On-Farm Trial grants have proven to play an important role in evaluating new conservation methods with potential to strengthen rural communities in the face of climate change.

How are CIG and On-Farm Trial grants funded?

CIG was authorized in the 2002 Farm Bill to promote promising conservation techniques or technologies, including through pilot projects and field demonstrations. The program was reauthorized in the 2008 Farm Bill, adding a focus on air quality concerns from agriculture. The legislation carved out $37.5 million annually in CIG funding for projects that implemented technologies or innovations to address air quality concerns.

The 2018 Farm Bill expanded CIG by authorizing the On-Farm Conservation Innovation Trials. The legislation authorized NRCS to use up to $25 million of EQIP funding each year for CIG On-Farm Trials.

The 2018 Farm Bill also set up a soil health demonstration trial to be carried out under the CIG On-Farm Trials. The main goal of the soil health demonstration trial was to provide incentives for producers to adopt conservation practices that improve soil health and increase carbon sequestration in the soil. A little over $11 million went to soil health demonstration trial projects in 2020.

Over the course of the program’s first two years, USDA awarded $48.3 million in CIG On Farm Trials grants. CIG On-Farm Trials received a new influx of funding in 2022 from the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which appropriated more than $18 billion in new climate-smart agriculture funding specifically for greenhouse gas mitigation and USDA conservation programs. The IRA committed an additional $25 million each fiscal year to CIG On-Farm Trials with an explicit focus on projects that reduce enteric methane emissions. This increased total funding available under the program to $50 million for FY 2023.

Key Takeaways

  • The Conservation Innovation Grants, including those for on-farm trials, are administered by USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service and serve to support innovation in resource conservation by developing and incentivizing the adoption of cost-saving, efficient, and environmentally-beneficial agricultural practices.

  • CIG On-Farm Trial grants specifically support the development and proliferation of new technologies, while also encouraging the evaluation of social, environmental, and financial impacts associated with new conservation approaches and tools.

  • CIG On-Farm Trials were first authorized in the 2018 Farm Bill. The program received additional funds in 2022 as part of the Inflation Reduction Act’s nearly $20 billion investment in NRCS conservation programs.