Albert Johnson Sr., 81, and his family raise cattle on about 15 acres near Lexington, Miss. During long spells without rain, like the drought this summer, the grass dries up and the Johnsons have to buy hay. Then the pond dries up and they have to use a hose from the house to water the cows.
Against all odds, the Johnsons' farm has persisted, while 99% of other Black-owned farms are now gone.
In an age of mechanized and industrialized agriculture, they face many challenges in operating a sustainable cattle farm — and there's federal assistance to help with that.
But last month, Johnson's children learned their application for federal conservation funding was turned down. They had sought up to $30,000 to dig a well and add cross fencing that would have allowed them to do rotational cattle grazing, which protects the soil from erosion.
"It was like 'Here again, another generation,'" said Charlene Gatson, 50, Johnson's daughter. "It was like history repeating itself."
The Biden administration has called such USDA conservation programs a "linchpin" in the nation's climate strategy, yet they remain vastly underfunded.
Just three out of 10 landowner applications for the two main programs, the Environmental Quality and Incentives Program (EQIP) and the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), were approved between 2018 and 2022. The majority of landowners are told to try again without advice on how to improve their odds.
"These are farmers and landowners who want to do conservation on their farm. They want to do something we all seem to support — which is conserving natural resources," said Jonathan Coppess, an associate professor and director of the Gardner Agriculture Policy Program at the University of Illinois.
Although the Inflation Reduction Act provided $18 billion more for these in-demand conservation programs, some members of Congress want to claw back that money to pay for the 2023 Farm Bill.
"We need funding just for the cows to survive," Gatson said.
The family wants to install cross fencing to allow them to move the cattle around, so plants can regrow between grazings and better protect the soil from erosion. A new well to provide reliable water would cost as much as $20,000.
The Johnson family applied for the EQIP program, which reimburses agricultural and forestry producers 50% to 90% of the cost for fixing specific conservation problems and delivering environmental benefits, such as improving water or air quality, enriching soil or protecting against drought.
Between 2018 and 2022, the NRCS allocated $6.2 billion for EQIP, but that only covered 31% of the nearly 600,000 applications submitted during that five-year period, according to Investigate Midwest's analysis of application and funding data the USDA provided to the Gazette as part of a Freedom of Information Act request.
The Conservation Stewardship Program, created in the 2008 Farm Bill, provides annual payments to producers willing to improve conservation over a five-year period. The NRCS awarded $2.1 billion from fiscal 2018 through fiscal 2022, which covered just 28% of applications nationwide.
The most popular requests for EQIP and CSP funds vary by state.
In Iowa and Wisconsin, where corn and soybeans grow, cover crops were by far the most-funded EQIP practice from 2017 through 2020, according to an analysis from the Environmental Working Group.
But in Mississippi, with a more diverse farming mix including poultry, livestock and cotton, the EQIP practices that got the most funding were for fencing, grade stabilization structures and irrigation.
The Mississippi NRCS suggested in a Oct. 6 denial letter that the Johnsons "defer" their EQIP application, which puts it back in the pile for the next funding cycle. But Gatson — like other farmers — wants to know why their project didn't rank higher so she can improve the application for next time.
NRCS offices across the country have been trying to staff up to provide faster distribution of funds and more help for applicants. A workload analysis for Mississippi NRCS says they need another 55 to 60 employees to meet the need there.
Mississippi conservation officials have been expanding outreach to small producers, including those who haven't traditionally gotten funding.
"If you look at Mississippi, it has the highest percentage of Black landowners in the nation and that's around 10%," said James Cummins, executive director of Wildlife Mississippi, a nonprofit that works toward habitat restoration and conservation policy in the state.
Mississippi, a state where agriculture is the No. 1 industry, submitted a whopping 10% of all EQIP and CSP applications from fiscal 2018 through fiscal 2022. But despite having the highest number of applications in both programs, only 14% of its CSP applications were approved, making it the state with the lowest approval rate relative to its application volume. In the case of EQIP, the state had an approval rate of just 21%.
Conservation advocates hope a federal cash infusion will reduce the backlog of unfunded projects.
The Inflation Reduction Act, signed by President Joe Biden in August 2022, provides $8.45 billion more for EQIP and $3.25 billion more for CSP starting this year and building through fiscal 2026. This could potentially fund hundreds of thousands more applications. There's another $300 million to quantify greenhouse gas sequestration.
"We know nationwide that IRA funds will increase" in 2024, said Jamie Alderks, assistant state conservationist for financial assistance programs with the Illinois NRCS. "IRA funds will assist in meeting some of the unmet demand."
But Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives want to repurpose that IRA conservation money to help pay for the Farm Bill, which expired in October without being renewed. House Agriculture Chairman Glenn Thompson suggested cutting $50 billion, mostly to climate change and public nutrition programs, to pay for other agriculture programs, such as crop insurance, the Hill reported.
In an Oct. 23 letter published by Politico, 24 Democrats on the House Agriculture Committee pushed back against the idea: "Moving the IRA funds from conservation would be denying farmers the support they need and want."
Erin Jordan works for the Gazette in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Madeline Heim works for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. And Mónica Cordero works for Investigate Midwest. All participate in the Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk, an independent reporting network based at the University of Missouri in partnership with Report for America, with major funding from the Walton Family Foundation.