U.S. Code of Federal Regulations

Regulations most recently checked for updates: Oct 20, 2019

§ 12.5 - Exemption.

(a) Exemptions regarding highly erodible land - (1) Highly erodible cropland in production or in USDA programs during 1981 through 1985 crop years. During the period beginning on December 23, 1985, and ending on the later of January 1, 1990, or the date that is two years after the date the cropland on which an agricultural commodity is produced was surveyed by NRCS to determine if such land is highly erodible, no person shall be determined to be ineligible for benefits as provided in § 12.4 as the result of the production of an agricultural commodity on any highly erodible land:

(i) That was planted to an agricultural commodity in any year 1981 through 1985; or

(ii) That was set aside, diverted, or otherwise not cultivated in any such crop years under a program administered by the Secretary for any such crops to reduce production of an agricultural commodity.

(2) Compliance with a conservation plan or conservation system. As further specified in this part, no person shall be ineligible for the program benefits described in § 12.4 as the result of production of an agricultural commodity on highly erodible land or the designation of such land for conservation use if such production or designation is in compliance with a conservation plan or conservation system approved under paragraph (a)(2)(i) or (a)(2)(ii) of this section. A person shall not be ineligible for program benefits under § 12.4 as the result of the production of an agricultural commodity on highly erodible land or as the result of designation of such land as conservation use if the production or designation is:

(i) In an area within a CD, under a conservation system that has been approved by the CD after the CD determines that the conservation system is in conformity with technical standards set forth in the NRCS field office technical guide for such district; or

(ii) In an area not within a CD, under a conservation system that has been approved by NRCS to be adequate for the production of such agricultural commodity on highly erodible land or for the designation of such land as conservation use.

(3) Reliance upon NRCS determination for highly erodible land. A person may be relieved from ineligibility for program benefits as the result of the production of an agricultural commodity which was produced on highly erodible land or for the designation of such land as conservation use in reliance on a determination by NRCS that such land was not highly erodible land, except that this paragraph shall not apply to any agricultural commodity that was planted on highly erodible land, or for the designation of highly erodible land as conservation use after NRCS determines that such land is highly erodible land, and the person is notified of such determinations.

(4) Areas of 2 acres or less. No person shall be determined to be ineligible under § 12.4 for noncommercial production of agricultural commodities on highly erodible land on an area of 2 acres or less if it is determined by FSA that such production is not intended to circumvent the conservation requirements otherwise applicable under this part.

(5) Good faith. (i) No person will become ineligible under § 12.4 as a result of the failure of such person to apply a conservation system on highly erodible land if all of the following apply:

(A) FSA determines such person has acted in good faith and without the intent to violate the provisions of this part;

(B) NRCS determines that the person complies with paragraph (a)(5)(ii) of this section; and

(C) The good faith determination of the FSA county or State committee has been reviewed and approved by the applicable State Executive Director, with the technical concurrence of the State Conservationist; or district director, with the technical concurrence of the area conservationist.

(ii) A person who otherwise meets the requirements of paragraphs (a)(5)(i)(A) and (a)(5)(i)(C) of this section will be allowed a reasonable period of time, as determined by NRCS, but not to exceed one year, during which to implement the measures and practices necessary to be considered actively applying the person's conservation plan, as determined by USDA. If a person does not take the required corrective actions, the person may be determined to be ineligible for the crop year during which such actions were to be taken, as well as any subsequent crop year.

(iii) Notwithstanding the good-faith requirements of paragraph (a)(5)(i) of this section, if NRCS observes a possible compliance deficiency while providing on-site technical assistance, NRCS will provide to the responsible person, not later than 45 days after observing the possible violation, information regarding actions needed to comply with the plan and this subtitle. NRCS will provide this information in lieu of reporting the observation as a violation, if the responsible person attempts to correct the deficiencies as soon as practicable, as determined by NRCS, after receiving the information, but not later than one year after receiving the information. If a person does not take the required corrective actions, the person may be determined to be ineligible for the crop year during which the compliance deficiencies occurred, as well as any subsequent crop year.

(iv) A person who meets the requirements of paragraphs (a)(5)(i) and (a)(5)(ii) of this section will, in lieu of the loss of all benefits specified under § 12.4(d) and (e) for such crop year, be subject to a reduction in benefits by an amount commensurate with the seriousness of the violation, as determined by FSA. The dollar amount of the reduction will be determined by FSA and may be based on the number of acres and the degree of erosion hazard for the area in violation, as determined by NRCS, or upon such other factors as FSA determines appropriate.

(v) Any person whose benefits are reduced in a crop year under paragraph (a)(5) of this section may be eligible for all of the benefits specified under § 12.4(d) and (e) for any subsequent crop year if, prior to the beginning of the subsequent crop year, NRCS determines that such person is actively applying a conservation plan according to the schedule specified in the plan on all highly erodible land planted to an agricultural commodity or designated as conservation use.

(6) Allowable variances. (i) Notwithstanding any other provisions of this part, no person shall be determined to be ineligible for benefits as a result of the failure of such person to apply a conservation system if NRCS determines that -

(A) The failure is technical and minor in nature and that such violation has little effect on the erosion control purposes of the conservation plan applicable to the land on which the violation has occurred; or

(B) The failure is due to circumstances beyond the control of the person; or

(C) NRCS grants a temporary variance from the practices specified in the plan for the purpose of handling a specific problem, including weather, pest, and disease problems, which NRCS determines cannot reasonably be addressed except through such variance.

(ii) If the person's request for a temporary variance involves the use of practices or measures to address weather, pest, or disease problems, NRCS shall make a decision on whether to grant the variance during the 30-day period beginning on the date of receipt of the request. If NRCS fails to render a decision during the period, the temporary variance shall be considered granted unless the person seeking the variance had reason to know that the variance would not be granted. In determining whether to grant a variance for natural disasters such as weather, pest, or disease problems, NRCS will consider such factors as:

(A) The percent of a stand damaged or destroyed by the event;

(B) The percent of expected crop production compared to normal production for that crop;

(C) The documented invasion of non-native insects, weeds, or diseases for which no recognized treatment exists;

(D) Whether an event is severe or unusual based on historical weather records; and

(E) Other specific circumstances caused by a natural event that prevented the implementation of conservation practices or systems, installation of structures, or planting of cover crops.

(7) Technical and minor violations. Notwithstanding any other provisions of this part, a reduction in benefits in an amount commensurate with the seriousness of the violation, as determined by FSA, and consistent with paragraph (a)(5)(iv) of this section, will be applied if NRCS determines that a violation involving highly erodible land that would otherwise lead to a loss of benefits is both of the following:

(i) Technical and minor in nature; and

(ii) Has a minimal effect on the erosion control purposes of the conservation plan applicable to the land on which the violation occurred.

(b) Exemptions for wetlands and converted wetlands - (1) General exemptions. A person shall not be determined to be ineligible for program benefits under § 12.4 as the result of the production of an agricultural commodity on converted wetland or the conversion of wetland if:

(i) The land is a prior-converted cropland and meets the definition of a prior-converted cropland as of the date of a wetland determination by NRCS;

(ii) The land has been determined by NRCS to be a prior-converted cropland and such determination has been certified, and NRCS determines that the wetland characteristics returned after the date of the wetland certification as a result of -

(A) The lack of maintenance of drainage, dikes, levees, or similar structures,

(B) The lack of management of the lands containing the wetland, or

(C) Circumstances beyond the control of the person;

(iii) The land was determined by NRCS to be a farmed wetland or a farmed-wetland pasture and -

(A) Such land meets wetland criteria through a voluntary restoration, enhancement, or creation action after that determination,

(B) The technical determinations regarding the baseline site conditions and the restoration, enhancement, or creation action have been adequately documented by NRCS,

(C) The proposed conversion action is documented by the NRCS prior to implementation, and

(D) The extent of the proposed conversion is limited so that the conditions will be at least equivalent to the wetland values, acreage, and functions that existed at the time of implementation of the voluntary wetland restoration, enhancement, or creation action;

(iv) NRCS has determined that the conversion if for a purpose that does not make the production of an agricultural commodity possible, such as conversions for fish production, trees, vineyards, shrubs, cranberries, agricultural waste management structures, livestock ponds, fire control, or building and road construction and no agricultural commodity is produced on such land;

(v) NRCS has determined that the actions of the person with respect to the conversion of the wetland or the combined effect of the production of an agricultural commodity on a wetland converted by the person or by someone else, individually and in connection with all other similar actions authorized by NRCS in the area, would have only a minimal effect on the wetland functions and values of wetlands in the area;

(vi)(A) After December 23, 1985, the Army Corps of Engineers issued an individual permit pursuant to section 404 of the Clean Water Act, 33 U.S.C. 1344,authorizing,acreage,and,as,or,1985,the,33.S.C. 1344, by an Army Corps of Engineers nationwide or regional general permit and the wetland values, acreage, and functions were adequately mitigated, as determined by NRCS; or

(vii) The land is determined by NRCS to be -

(A) An artificial wetland,

(B) A wet area created by a water delivery system, irrigation, irrigation system, or application of water for irrigation,

(C) A nontidal drainage or irrigation ditch excavated in non-wetland, or

(D) A wetland converted by actions of persons other than the person applying for USDA program benefits or any of the person's predecessors in interest after December 23, 1985, if such conversion was not the result of a scheme or device to avoid compliance with this part. Further drainage improvement on such land is not permitted without loss of eligibility for USDA program benefits, unless NRCS determines under paragraph (b)(1)(v) of this section that further drainage activities applied to such land would have minimal effect on the wetland functions and values in the area. In applying this paragraph, a converted wetland shall be presumed to have been converted by the person applying for USDA program benefits unless the person can show that the conversion was caused by a third party with whom the person was not associated through a scheme or device as described under § 12.10 of this part. In this regard, activities of a water resource district, drainage district, or similar entity will be attributed to all persons within the jurisdiction of the district or other entity who are assessed for the activities of the district or entity. Accordingly, where a person's wetland is converted due to the actions of the district or entity, the person shall be considered to have caused or permitted the drainage. Notwithstanding the provisions of the preceding sentences and as determined by FSA to be consistent with the purposes of this part, the activities of a drainage district or other similar entity will not be attributed to a person to the extent that the activities of the district or entity were beyond the control of the person and the wetland converted is not used by the person for the production of an agricultural commodity or a forage crop for harvest by mechanical means or mitigation for the converted wetland occurs in accordance with this part.

(2) Commenced conversion wetlands. (i) The purpose of a determination of a commenced conversion made under this paragraph is to implement the legislative intent that those persons who had actually started conversion of a wetland or obligated funds for conversion prior to December 23, 1985, would be allowed to complete the conversion so as to avoid unnecessary economic hardship.

(ii) All persons who believed they had a wetland or converted wetland for which conversion began but was not completed prior to December 23, 1985, must have requested by September 19, 1988, FSA to make a determination of commencement in order to be considered exempt under this section.

(iii) Any conversion activity considered by FSA to be commenced under this section lost its exempt status if such activity as not completed on or before January 1, 1995. For purposes of this part, land on which such conversion activities were completed by January 1, 1995, shall be evaluated by the same standards and qualify for the same exemptions as prior-converted croplands. For purposes of this part, land on which such conversion activities were not completed by January 1, 1995, shall be evaluated by the same standards and qualify for the same exemptions as wetlands or farmed wetlands, as applicable.

(iv) Only those wetlands for which the construction had begun, or to which the contract or purchased supplies and materials related, qualified for a determination of commencement. However, in those circumstances where the conversion of wetland did not meet the specific requirements of this paragraph, the person could have requested a commencement of conversion determination from the FSA Deputy Administrator for Farm Programs, upon a showing that undue economic hardship would have resulted because of substantial financial obligations incurred prior to December 23, 1985, for the primary and direct purpose of converting the wetland.

(3) Wetlands farmed under natural conditions. A person shall not be determined to be ineligible for program benefits under § 12.4 of this part as a result of the production of an agricultural commodity on a wetland on which the owner or operator of a farm or ranch uses normal cropping or ranching practices to produce agricultural commodities in a manner that is consistent for the area, where such production is possible as a result of natural conditions, such as drought, and is without action by the producer that alters the hydrology or removes woody vegetation.

(4) Mitigation. (i) No person shall be determined to be ineligible under § 12.4 for any action associated with the conversion of a wetland if the wetland values, acreage, and functions are adequately mitigated, as determined by NRCS, through the restoration of a converted wetland, the enhancement of an existing wetland, or the creation of a new wetland, if the mitigation -

(A) Is in accordance with a mitigation plan approved by NRCS;

(B) Is in advance of, or concurrent with, the wetland conversion or the production of an agricultural commodity, as applicable;

(C) Is not at the expense of the federal government in either supporting the direct or indirect costs of the restoration activity or costs associated with acquiring or securing mitigation sites, except if conducted under a mitigation banking program established by USDA;

(D) Occurs on lands in the same general area of the local watershed as the converted wetlands, provided that for purposes of this paragraph, lands in the same general area of the local watershed may include regional mitigation banks;

(E) Is on lands for which the owner has granted an easement to USDA or in the case of a mitigation bank operated under a USDA program, an entity approved by USDA, recorded the easement on public land records, and has agreed to the maintenance of the restored, created, or enhanced wetland for as long as the converted wetland for which the mitigation occurred remains in agricultural use or is not returned to its original wetland classification with equivalent values, acreage, and functions; and

(F) Provides the equivalent values, acreage, and functions that will be lost as a result of the wetland conversion.

(ii) A mitigation plan is a record of decisions that document the actions necessary to compensate for the loss of wetland values, acreage, and functions that result from converting a wetland. The mitigation plan may be a component of a larger natural resources conservation plan.

(iii) The State Conservationist, in consultation with the State Technical Committee, may name certain types or classes of wetland not eligible for exemption under paragraph (b)(4)(i) of this section where the State Conservationist determines that mitigation will not achieve equivalent replacement of wetland values, acreage, and functions within a reasonable time frame or for other reasons identified by the State Conservationist. Any type or class of wetland that a State Conservationist identifies as not eligible for exemption under paragraph (b)(4)(i) of this section will be published in the Federal Register for inclusion in this part.

(5) Good faith violations. (i) A person who is determined under § 12.4 of this part to be ineligible for benefits as the result of the production of an agricultural commodity on a wetland converted after December 23, 1985, or as the result of the conversion of a wetland after November 28, 1990, may regain eligibility for benefits if all of the following apply:

(A) FSA determines that such person acted in good faith and without the intent to violate the wetland provisions of this part; and

(B) NRCS determines that the person is implementing all practices in a mitigation plan within an agreed-to period, not to exceed one year; and

(C) The good faith determination of the FSA county or State committee has been reviewed and approved by the applicable State Executive Director, with the technical concurrence of the State Conservationist; or district director, with the technical concurrence of the area conservationist.

(ii) In determining whether a person acted in good faith under paragraph (b)(5)(i)(A) of this section, the FSA shall consider such factors as whether -

(A) The characteristics of the site were such that the person should have been aware that a wetland existed on the subject land,

(B) NRCS had informed the person about the existence of a wetland on the subject land,

(C) The person did not convert the wetland, but planted an agricultural commodity on converted wetland when the person should have known that a wetland previously existed on the subject land,

(D) The person has a record of violating the wetland provisions of this part or other Federal, State, or local wetland provisions, or

(E) There exists other information that demonstrates that the person acted with the intent to violate the wetland provisions of this part.

(iii) After the requirements of paragraph (b)(5)(i) of this section are met, USDA may waive applying the ineligibility provisions of § 12.4.

(6) Reliance upon NRCS wetland determination. (i) A person shall not be ineligible for program benefits as a result of taking an action in reliance on a previous certified wetland determination by NRCS.

(ii) A person who may be ineligible for program benefits as the result of the production of an agricultural commodity on converted wetland or for the conversion of a wetland may seek relief under § 12.11 of this part if such action was taken in reliance on an incorrect technical determination by NRCS as to the status of such land. If the error caused the person to make a substantial financial investment, as determined by the NRCS, for the conversion of a wetland, the person may be relieved of ineligibility for actions related to that portion of the converted wetland for which the substantial financial investment was expended in conversion activities. The relief available under this paragraph shall not apply to situations in which the person knew or reasonably should have known that the determination was in error because the characteristics of the site were such that the person should have been aware that a wetland existed on the subject land, or for other reasons.

(7) Responsibility to provide evidence. It is the responsibility of the person seeking an exemption related to converted wetlands under this section to provide evidence, such as receipts, crop-history data, drawings, plans or similar information, for purposes of determining whether the conversion or other action is exempt in accordance with this section.

[61 FR 47025, Sept. 6, 1996; 61 FR 53491, Oct. 11, 1996; 76 FR 82077, Dec. 30, 2011; 80 FR 22880, Apr. 24, 2015]