The Conservation Innovation Grant (CIG) program has been operating for nearly 20 years, providing over $300 million to cutting-edge innovations to address natural resource challenges on private lands. The program supports the development of innovative new tools, approaches, practices, and technologies to further natural resource conservation on private lands. Eligible entities for CIG awards include State and local government entities, Tribal entities, non-profit organizations, private businesses, universities, and individuals. While CIG accepts applications from all types of organizations, groups that have been Historically Underserved (HU) by USDA receive special consideration and benefits, including a reduced cost-share amount and competing for set-side funds specifically for Historically Underserved producers.
- What is a Historically Underserved Farmer or Rancher?
Groups are defined by the USDA as “Historically Underserved” (HU) because these groups have been historically underserved by USDA. To work toward righting historical wrongs, a variety of USDA programs provide special advantages to farmers, ranchers and forest landowners that fall into one of the groups below, which are included in the USDA’s HU definition.
Beginning Farmer or Rancher – new to farming or ranching, or, has operated a farm or ranch for less than 10-consecutive years. Socially Disadvantaged Farmer or Rancher – a member of a group whose members have been subjected to racial or ethnic prejudice because of their identity as members of that group without regard to their individual qualities. These include:
- American Indians or Alaskan Natives
- Blacks or African Americans
- Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islanders
Veteran Farmer or Rancher – has served in the armed forces and has not operated a farm or ranch, has operated a farm or ranch for less than 10-consecutive years, or first obtained veteran status during the last 10 years.
For the CIG Classic program, the following groups are eligible to apply to the HU set aside: (1) historically underserved producers; (2) community-based organizations comprised of or representing historically underserved producers; and, (3) entities proposing projects that involve historically underserved producers and for which the benefits of the project flow entirely to historically underserved producers.
For the On-Farm Trials competition, substantive inclusion of HU producers is given priority consideration as part of the proposal evaluation criteria.
- Limited Resource Farmer or Rancher – has a household income at or below the national poverty level (for a family of 4) or less than 50% of the county median household income.
- Benefits for Projects Supporting Historically Underserved Groups
CIG projects that qualify as serving or supporting HU groups receive the following benefits:
- Earmarked Funds (Classic and On-Farm Trials)
- At least 10 percent of the total funds available for CIG Classic and On-Farm Trials are set aside for proposals from HU producers and organizations serving HU groups.
- Reduced Matching Requirements (Classic and On-Farm Trials)
- CIG Classic applicants must provide a non-Federal funding match or cost-share amount from outside organizations at least equal to the amount of Federal funding requested. For HU projects, the required match is 50% of overall Federal funding granted. For example, an HU-qualifying entity requesting $500,000 in Federal CIG funding would need to provide at least $250,000 in matching funds.
- CIG On-Farm Trails applicants must provide a non-Federal funding match or cost-share amount from outside organizations at least equal 25% of the amount of Federal funding requested. For HU projects, the required match is 10% of overall Federal funding granted. For example, an HU-qualifying entity requesting $500,000 in Federal CIG funding would need to provide at least $50,000 in matching funds.
- Upon request from the applicant, NRCS may waive the cost share requirement entirely for any applicants that qualifies for the HU set aside and provides a justification of why it is unable to provide any matching funds. This waiver request should be included in the applicant’s HU Narrative section of its proposal.
- Priority Ranking (Classic and On-Farm Trails)
Proposals that include HU producers are given priority consideration through the peer panel review process, even if they do not apply for or are not eligible for the HU set aside.
- Earmarked Funds (Classic and On-Farm Trials)
- How CIG Proposals are Evaluated
All CIG proposals, regardless of whether they are applying for set-side HU funds or not, are evaluated on a number of technical criteria, including the quality of the proposal’s purpose and goals, the degree of innovation in the proposal’s technology or approach, and how beneficial and transferable the proposed project’s goals are. Projects that are applying as HU projects will be evaluated under additional criteria that focus on the degree that the project will benefit HU producers and communities and be successful in assisting these producers. Sample criteria include the following:
- To what degree are the benefits and/or goals of the proposed project clearly and appropriately targeted towards the HU producers that the project proports to serve?
- Has the project identified and built collaborations with community-based organizations and community leaders that can assist in informing the project goals and delivering results?
- Is there representation on the HU project or team that reflects the community that the project aims to serve?
- How well do the project goal and objectives aim to address the current barriers and historical legacies that have impacted participation and/or success that the target HU producers face?
- What Types of Projects Does CIG Fund?
Innovation is a central component of any successful CIG proposal. This innovation can take the form of developing or testing new technologies, incentivizing conservation adoption through market-based and conservation finance approaches, or developing or testing new conservation technologies, practices, and systems. CIG will fund pilot projects, field demonstrations, and on-farm conservation research that address a variety of resource concerns.
Notably, every year several Priority Areas are selected which determine what resource challenges and opportunities will be funded for CIG Classic. Examples of past Priority Areas include Water Quality, Water Reuse, Wildlife, Pollinator Habitat, Air Quality, Energy Conservation. The CIG Notice of Funding Opportunity is usually released in Spring.
The CIG program has two components that NRCS operates as separate competitions: Classic and On-Farm Conservation Innovation Trials (On-Farm Trials).
- Early stage pilots and demonstrations of promising technologies or approaches that may be high risk.
- A majority of grant funding is usually in project methods and field testing as opposed to farmer incentives.
- Requires evaluation of pilots or demonstrations.
There is also a CIG Classic State component. NRCS State offices choose each year whether to hold a State competition. The number of States administering their own CIG competitions generally ranges from 20-30.
- Designed to encourage more widespread adoption of innovations already proven to provide conservation benefits.
- Producer incentive payments must be a large portion of the budget, meant to encourage farmer adoption by offseting the risk of implementing innovative approaches.
- Requires evaluation of both conservation and economic outcomes.
- Eligibility more restrictive – funding amount higher ($5 million cap per project).