H798: NC Healthy Soils Act. Latest Version

AN ACT to establish the healthy soils program in the Division of soil and water conservation of the Department of Agriculture and consumer services.

The General Assembly of North Carolina enacts:

SECTION 1.  Chapter 139 of the General Statutes is amended by adding a new Article to read:

Article 6.

Healthy Soils Program.

§ 139‑65.  Legislative findings and purpose.

The General Assembly finds that improving and promoting soil health in this State is essential for assuring the continued productivity and economic and environmental benefits of agriculture in the State and that it is in the best interest of the citizens of North Carolina to provide financial incentives and technical assistance for farmers to improve soil health.

§ 139‑67.  Definitions.

The following definitions apply to this Article:

(1)        Department. – The Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

(2)        Soil health. – The overall composition and fertility of soil, including the amount of organic matter in and water‑holding capacity of soil, and the continued capacity of soil to function as a vital living biological system that sustains plants, animals, and humans and that supports production of diverse food, fiber, and other agricultural crops.

(3)        Healthy soil practices. – Agricultural practices developed in consultation with the Commission established by G.S. 139‑4 that:

a.         Improve the health of soils, including, but not limited to, consideration of depth of topsoil horizons, water filtration rates, water‑holding capacity, organic matter content, nutrient content, biological accessible nutrient content, bulk density, biological activity, and biological and microbiological diversity.

b.         Follow the principals of minimizing soil disturbance and external inputs, keeping soil covered, maximizing biodiversity, maximizing presence of living roots, and integrating animals into land management, including grazing animals, birds, beneficial insects, or keystone species, such as earthworms, and through practices such as conservation tillage, or no till, or minimum till, cover‑cropping, integrated crop‑livestock systems, agroforestry, planned grazing, efficient nutrient management, application of compost, and other appropriate methodologies.

(4)        Program. – The Healthy Soils and Watershed Program established by this Article.

(5)        Technical assistance. – Assistance provided to achieve the purpose of the Program.

(6)        University. – North Carolina State University.

(7)        Watershed health. – The continued capacity of surface and groundwater to function as a vital living biological system that is resilient to drought and storm events and that sustains humans, plants, and animals; healthy watersheds provide public and private benefits, including, but not limited to, improved water quality, drinking water security, recreation and tourism, stormwater management, flood mitigation, habitat resilience, and crop risk.

§ 139‑69.  Healthy Soils and Watershed Program – Declaration.

The General Assembly finds that healthy soil and water is a cornerstone of a high quality of life on earth and that soil health is integral to supporting agricultural viability; promoting positive environmental outcomes, including a more stable climate; ensuring the long‑term availability of nutritious food; and conserving biodiversity. A role of the Commission is to preserve and protect the public interest in the soil and water resources of the State and for this purpose to encourage, promote, facilitate, and, where such public interest requires, mandate the conservation and proper stewardship and use of the soil and water resources of this State, by measures including, but not limited to, the improvement of soil health and quantity of healthy soil; the improvement of watershed health; the control and mitigation of floods; the control of erosion by water or by wind; the preservation of the quality of water for its optimum use for agricultural, irrigation, recreational, industrial, and domestic purposes; all of which shall be presumed to be conducive to greater food security and public health, convenience, and welfare, both present and future. The Commission will work collaboratively with the Department of Environmental Quality on all of these initiatives.

§ 139‑71.  Healthy Soils and Watershed Program – Goals and objectives.

(a)        To improve agricultural viability; farm profitability; help agricultural producers and foresters implement good soil health practices that build soil organic matter, reduce soil erosion, soil compaction, and production costs; and improve nutrient management, moisture infiltration, moisture retention, drought resilience, disease suppression, and the beneficial activity of microbes, fungi, earthworms, and other organisms.

(b)        To improve nutritional content of agricultural products by increasing health‑promoting nutrients, micronutrients, and microbial processes of agricultural soils and by improving nutrient uptake by agricultural products, thereby improving human health.

(c)        To improve environmental function by reducing soil erosion, runoff, and leaching of nutrients and pollutants; improving water quality; and promoting strategies to build soil organic matter and other beneficial properties of soils.

§ 139‑73.  Healthy Soils and Watershed Program – Special fund.

(a)        The Healthy Soils and Watershed Fund is established as a special fund in the Department to support the Program. The Fund is composed of appropriations from the General Assembly and other funding made available to the Department from federal government programs, the State, or other sources. Subject to the availability of funds, they may be used by the Department for the purposes set forth in this Article, including, but not limited to, grants, research, technical assistance, educational material, and outreach to farmers whose management practices will contribute to healthy soils and watersheds and improved environmental function. On an annual basis, the Department shall provide a report to the Governor and the General Assembly on the receipts, expenditures, and activities funded through the Program and the results of the activities. State funds for the Program shall remain available until expended.

(b)        The Commission shall report annually no later than January 31 of each year to the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Agriculture and Natural and Economic Resources and the Fiscal Research Division. The report shall include a list of projects funded by the Program, findings regarding the effectiveness of each of these projects to accomplish the purposes of this Article, and recommendations for additional funding or legislation.

§ 139‑75.  Healthy Soils and Watershed Program – Initiatives.

(a)        Subject to the availability of funding, the Commission shall:

(1)        Implement a voluntary program to assist in improving soil health, watershed health, water quality, and wildlife habitat in the State.

(2)        Assist rural, suburban, and urban agricultural producers, ranchers, foresters, and property owners in soil health assessments and in developing soil health plans.

(3)        Assist rural, suburban, and urban agricultural producers with healthy soil practices to do all of the following:

a.         Manage and optimize soil health, including, but not limited to, managing nitrogen and phosphorus to minimize nutrient runoff and reduce downstream nutrient loading.

b.         Control soil erosion and sedimentation, improve soil health and quantity, improve watershed health and reliable water availability, restore and enhance wildlife habitat, and manage water runoff and drainage water for improved local and downstream water quality.

c.         Identify ways to increase the generation and use of compost to build healthy soil and increase water retention.

d.         Avoid, control, and trap nutrient runoff and maintain agricultural and forestry productivity and resilience to drought and extreme weather.

e.         Improve water infiltration rates and water‑holding capacities of soils for improved stormwater management and flood control, drought resilience, and groundwater supply.

(b)        Subject to the availability of funding, the Department shall make grants and incentives to farmers, foresters, and agricultural cooperatives to enhance the education, training, employment, income, productivity, and retention of those working or aspiring to work in the field of healthy soil practices and to implement healthy soil practices in the State. Amounts credited to the Fund shall be used to provide grants on a competitive basis to public, private, and charitable entities to finance projects in furtherance of the Program. The Program shall be designed to prioritize incentives and provide no less than twenty‑five percent (25%) of funds to beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, as defined by 7 U.S.C. § 2279(a). Expenditures from the Fund for this purpose shall complement and not replace existing local, State, private, or federal funding for related programs. The Department may use up to fifty thousand dollars ($50,000) of the funds allocated to the Program for grants in each fiscal year for the costs associated with administering and implementing the Program.

§ 139‑77.  Healthy Soils and Watershed Program – Primary responsibilities of the Commission.

(a)        The Commission has primary responsibility for the following components of the soil health initiative:

(1)        Developing, publishing, and distributing outreach and education materials to help conservation districts, cooperative extension, and local governments raise awareness of the importance of soil and water health to the public, to farmers, and to agricultural employees, including farmer case studies on soil and water health best practices, experiences, and outcomes.

(2)        Training and mobilizing technical service providers to encourage farmers, ranchers, and land managers to voluntarily implement desired soil and water health stewardship and enter into any maintenance or easement agreements needed to maintain soil and watershed health benefits obtained. The Commission and the University must coordinate technical assistance, working with and through conservation districts and university extension, to avoid duplication of effort in carrying out these technical assistance responsibilities.

(3)        Training of technical assistance providers, property owners, land managers, and others to voluntarily take ongoing soil and water samples and measurements and submit results to the soil and watershed health monitoring database.

(4)        In collaboration with the Department and the University, developing equitable criteria for the awarding of grants to help producers improve soil and watershed health across the State's diverse agricultural systems.

(5)        Consulting and collaborating with the Department and the University to support all soil and watershed health initiative goals, objectives, and components established in this Article.

(b)        In consultation with the Department, the Department of Environmental Quality, and the University, the Commission may adopt rules as needed to fulfill the purposes of this Article.

SECTION 2.  This act is effective when it becomes law.