This collection is intended for informational purposes. Eligible entities should consult with their state’s ACEP-ALE program contact for confirmation of state-specific program and application requirements.
ACEP-ALE for Entities
- Learn About ACEP-ALE
- Prepare to Participate
- Apply to ACEP-ALE
- Prepare to Acquire
- Steward the Easement
Learn About ACEP-ALE
The Agricultural Conservation Easement Program – Agricultural Land Easement component (ACEP-ALE) is a voluntary federal conservation program implemented by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) that protects agricultural land from conversion to non-agricultural uses. ACEP-ALE provides matching funds to eligible entities to acquire conservation easements on farm and ranch land.
Learn About Agricultural Conservation Easements
A conservation easement is a deed restriction used to protect natural resources on land. An agricultural conservation easement makes land available for agricultural uses, which may keep land affordable and support land access and succession. A conservation easement may also provide potential tax benefits to landowners. Agricultural conservation easements limit what can be built on the property and where structures can be located, limit non-agricultural development, subdivision and other uses that are inconsistent with agriculture.
Explore How ACEP-ALE Works
The Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) provides technical and financial assistance to protect farm and ranch lands and conserve grasslands and wetlands. Under the Agricultural Land Easement (ALE) component of ACEP, NRCS provides matching funds to eligible entities, state and local governments, non-governmental organizations, and Indian tribes to acquire agricultural conservation easements on working agricultural lands.
NRCS sets minimum criteria that all land, landowners, and entities must meet in order to qualify for program participation. They process and rank the applications which are submitted by entities. The number of applications submitted varies from state to state. Contacting your state NRCS program manager can give a sense of how competitive applications have been in the past.
Once the easement transaction has closed, the entity maintains responsibility for stewarding the land in perpetuity according to terms in the agreement. Additionally, NRCS maintains a right of enforcement throughout the life of the easement.
Consider your organization’s capacity to handle these responsibilities before deciding to participate. Review the following pages to learn about eligibility criteria, applying for ACEP-ALE participation, and holding an agricultural conservation easement.
Get to Know NRCS
NRCS is a federal agency within the U.S. Department of Agriculture. NRCS works with farmers and landowners to help improve agricultural productivity and protect natural resources through conservation programs and technical assistance.
The agency has a state office in each state and local service centers in most counties throughout the U.S. Some local service centers serve more than one county.
As you proceed through the ACEP-ALE application process, NRCS field staff in local service centers can help answer questions about using the Web Soil Survey and understanding the soils and land uses of potential easement land. This will be relevant when determining the land’s eligibility. Field staff can also assist with connecting your entity and the landowners you work with to the USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) to complete forms required for eligibility. NRCS field staff may administer several programs simultaneously, and while ACEP-ALE administration may not be their primary task, they are a good general resource for conservation programs and processes.
The ACEP-ALE program manager, typically located in the NRCS state office, can answer any program-related questions you may have. Each state has ranking criteria, application deadlines, and funding opportunities. Contacting your state program manager will help you understand how ACEP-ALE is administered in your state. Staff capacity may be limited in some states. Call the program manager to set up a time to ask specific ACEP-ALE questions.
- USDA Service Center Locator
- NRCS State Office Websites
- NRCS ACEP-ALE State Program Manager Contact List
Prepare to Participate
Before taking steps to apply for ACEP-ALE funding, you will need to verify whether your entity meets the minimum eligibility criteria that are set by law.
If another organization is co-holding an easement with you or acting as a 3rd party right holder, they do not need to separately establish eligibility unless they are also applying separately as an eligible entity.
Determine Your Eligibility
To determine whether your organization is eligible, refer to the list of minimum criteria below and use our checklist. If you still have questions about your eligibility, your state’s ACEP-ALE program manager can assist you and help determine what documentation is needed to establish eligibility.
Each of the following criteria must be satisfied:
- Be an agency of a state or local government (can include a farmland protection board or land resource council established under state law); an Indian Tribe; or a non-profit nongovernmental organization
- Be organized for the purpose of land preservation (can include recreation, natural habitat, open space, farmland, forest land, and/or historically important land)
- Have authority to purchase and hold agricultural conservation easements
- Have an established agricultural land protection program that purchases conservation easements
- Have demonstrated a commitment to the long-term conservation of agricultural lands
- Have the capability to acquire, manage, and enforce easements
- Have staff dedicated to stewardship and monitoring
- Satisfy non-Federal share requirements
You will also need a DUNS number and have an updated System for Award Management (SAM) registration. The DUNS number is a 9-digit identifier that is issued and maintained for free by Dun and Bradstreet. This number verifies the existence of a business entity and is a prerequisite for registration in SAM.
- Entity Eligibility Checklist
- How to Get a DUNS Number and Register with SAM
- SAM Registration Webinar
Screen Potential Projects
Before you invest a lot of time:
- Find out if the landowner is comfortable working with a federal agency. Landowners will need to disclose personal information to USDA in order to participate in the program.
- Ensure the landowner is willing to live with a permanent restriction on their property.
- Determine whether the parcel includes productive agricultural land. The majority of parcels qualify for the ALE program based on this category. The land must contain at least 50% prime, unique, statewide, or locally important agricultural soils. Generally, the higher the percentage of important soils, the better a project will rank. If your site does not meet the soils criteria, there are other options for qualifying, but be sure to check with state ranking criteria first.
If a project passes your initial screening, you can then spend more time confirming landowner and land eligibility.
Determine Your Landowner’s Eligibility
Confirm Ownership of Land
It is important to identify all landowners at the beginning of the process to avoid delays and complications later. You can take these steps to confirm the ownership of the parcel:
- Review a copy of the property deed.
- Request an initial title search to confirm that the deed provided by the landowner is the most recent and accurate and covers all portions of the proposed offered area.
Coordinate Completion of USDA Eligibility Forms
All individuals, legal entities, and entity members of record need to complete paperwork with USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) to determine eligibility, including adjusted gross income (AGI) and conservation compliance. A Subsidiary Print is the resulting report that summarizes key eligibility information. Each landowner must independently qualify. You should oversee this process. Set up an appointment with FSA to ensure each landowner completes the required eligibility forms.
This documentation should be completed as soon as possible. You could initiate this process as early as the start of the new federal fiscal year (October 1). You do not need to wait for an announcement of ACEP-ALE application cycles to certify landowner eligibility. Once the landowners have filed the necessary documentation with FSA, it is suggested to contact FSA periodically to ensure it is being processed. You will need to obtain permission from the landowners to speak with FSA on their behalf.
To help assess whether a landowner is eligible to participate, use our Landowner Eligibility Checklist below.
Review Land Eligibility Criteria
After the initial screening, work with your landowner to confirm that the land meets all of the applicable land eligibility criteria:
- Be privately owned or tribal agricultural land on a farm or ranch;
- Fits into one of the four eligibility categories listed below when applying:
- Contains at least 50% prime, unique, or other productive soil,
- Contains historical or archaeological resources,
- Protects grazing uses and related conservation values, or
- Furthers a state or local government policy consistent with the purposes of ACEP. You will need to cite the relevant policy if you choose this option. Contact your state program manager to determine if this eligibility criteria is available in your state.
- Be identified as cropland, pastureland, rangeland, grassland or other grazing land, and/or nonindustrial private forest land that contributes to the economic viability of the parcel or serves as a buffer from development; and
- Be subject to a written pending offer from an eligible entity to purchase agricultural land, or be subject to a buy-protect-sell transaction.
The following two items are listed as eligibility criteria in the ACEP-ALE program manual. In practice, NRCS will not consider projects to be ineligible based on these factors. These factors are considered in ranking. Be prepared to provide evidence of these factors at the time of application to make your project more competitive.
- Have access to markets, infrastructure, and other agricultural support services; and
- Be experiencing development pressure.
In addition, there are a few factors that make land ineligible, including: encumbrances with similar protections as ALE, unacceptable exceptions to clear title, adverse on or offsite conditions, and more.
To learn more about land eligibility criteria, use the below Land Eligibility Checklist.
Understand Ranking Criteria
Applications are ranked by NRCS. NRCS staff from your state will conduct onsite visits and rank eligible parcel applications. National criteria make up at least half of the total score; state criteria may account for up to half. The State Conservationist with input from the State Technical Committee, however, may decide to give more weight to the national ranking factors. The national criteria consider the proportion of important agricultural land and active agricultural uses; the extent to which the parcel’s surroundings support agriculture and indicate development pressure; and whether the land contains significant grasslands.
As a result, ranking criteria are unique to each state and are updated each fiscal year. Changes must occur at least 30 days prior to an announced application cutoff date and the criteria must be posted on the state NRCS web page. Each state’s ranking criteria can be found by visiting the appropriate state NRCS web page. Using the “List of NRCS State Offices” link below, select your state and navigate to “Programs”, “Easements”, then “ACEP-ALE”.
Assess Parcel Configuration
Walk the property with the landowner and explore their personal and business goals. Discuss possible locations of exclusions for future building lots or commercial activity, or future farm enterprises. Take note of certain features of the property that could potentially impact ALE participation, such as access, infrastructure, abutting properties, and anything else that will help you and NRCS assess onsite and offsite conditions.
Now that you are thoroughly acquainted with the parcel, it is time to explore parcel configurations. As you consider possible easement area configurations, think about:
- Land eligibility criteria
- Ranking criteria
- Landowner goals
- Entity goals
- ACEP-ALE minimum deed terms
Prepare a few different examples and walk through them with the landowner.
The configuration of the acres that are proposed for enrollment will impact the land’s eligibility and ranking. If the proposed easement boundaries are different than the property boundaries, the landowner may need to procure a survey.
Discuss Easement Deed Terms
It is important to talk with your landowner about the ACEP-ALE minimum deed terms and your entity’s deed terms prior to applying for participation. ACEP-ALE minimum deed terms are mandatory. It is very difficult to modify or revoke an ACEP-ALE easement once it is on the land. Therefore, be sure that your organization and the landowner fully understand and agree to these terms prior to participating in this program.
Be aware that ALE deeds must include provisions that protect the attributes for which a parcel was ranked and selected for funding by NRCS. As a result, if a parcel’s ranking includes, for example, the commitment to protect pastureland that contains special wildlife habitat, the deed terms will enforce that commitment.
- ACEP-ALE Fact Sheet
- ACEP-ALE Program Manual, Sections 528.33-34, 528.40-41, and 528.60-61
- ACEP-ALE Minimum Deed Terms
- Land Eligibility Checklist
- Web Soil Survey
- List of NRCS State Offices to Access State Ranking Criteria
Apply to ACEP-ALE
Learn About Funding Availability for ACEP-ALE
Each fiscal year, NRCS issues a national bulletin to provide guidance on ACEP-ALE implementation. It includes vital information for NRCS staff about application review and selection, submitting agreements, internal review, and suggests dates for the current year’s application process. The guidance may also update standard forms, agreements, and deed term provisions.
States cannot begin processing or funding new applications until this guidance is issued. The release date for the fiscal year guidance varies based on a number of factors, including whether there are new Farm Bill provisions or federal budgetary discussions.
After the guidance is released, NRCS state offices post information about the new application cycle. States are required to set the application deadline at least 30 days after the issuance of guidance. You can find the web pages for your state office using the “List of NRCS State Offices” link below. Select your state and navigate to “Programs”, “Easements”, then “ACEP-ALE”. If information is not available or out of date, contact the state program manager.
Gather Supporting Documentation
NRCS makes determinations about eligibility and ranking based on the documentation you supply. They may verify some information with an on-site visit. Use the below checklists as guides and suggestions for gathering the documentation that will be needed to apply for ACEP-ALE. Refer to these lists early, as they will give you an idea of what to expect in the application process.
Access Application Forms
ACEP-ALE applications are comprised of two separate forms to be completed by eligible entities – one to establish an Agreement (CPA-41) and another to fund a Parcel Contract (CPA-41A) associated with the Agreement. First, be sure you are using the latest forms, as older forms may still be available in various places online. The latest forms are available at eForms.gov. You can complete the forms online and submit the forms electronically by registering for a USDA Customer ID. Visit eForms.gov for more information. You may also download fillable forms using the “Browse Forms” feature and submit them directly to your state program manager. Downloadable copies of the forms may also be posted on your state’s NRCS webpage.
When browsing for a form, keep searches as simple as possible. If you know the number of form, such as NRCS-CPA-41, it helps to enter only the number 41 into the “Form Number” field without using the above filters. Avoid using punctuation or additional words, as search results will be too narrow and the form you are looking for may not appear.
If you see an error message instructing you to install Adobe Reader and configure viewing, refer to the “eForms Browser Instructions” document below. Be aware that not all USDA forms allow you to save information you type into them. Refer to these instructions for more information.
Complete Your Application Forms
The first form to be submitted is referred to as the Entity Application (CPA-41), which can be submitted at any time, with or without the second form for individual parcels. The CPA-41 covers entity eligibility and identifies other partners that are expected to be involved in upcoming projects as co-holders or 3rd party right holders. Specific easement information is not captured by this form. If the Entity Application is approved, your organization enters into a program agreement with NRCS. This program agreement is in effect for 5 years.
A Parcel Sheet (CPA-41A) is required for each ACEP-ALE parcel. The CPA-41A gathers information about the proposed easement land and the funding requested. Multiple parcels can be associated with a program agreement. Parcel applications can be submitted simultaneously with an Entity Application or after you have a program agreement with NRCS. You should submit these forms together or within a short period of time in order to be considered for funding. Funding decisions will only be made once CPA-41A forms are submitted with supporting documentation. If a parcel is selected, your organization will enter into a contract with NRCS for funding and proceed through the acquisition process.
Check Updates to NRCS Guidance
NRCS periodically releases national instructions and bulletins to clarify program implementation in a given fiscal year. Consult with your state ACEP-ALE program manager for more information.
1. FY 2021 Agricultural Conservation Easement Program Implementation and New Enrollment Guidance (published December 15, 2020). This guidance provides information on application review and selection; enrollment agreement submission, review, and execution; treatment of prior-year enrollments; and the timeline and deadlines for implementation of ACEP.
2. Fiscal Year (FY) 2021 Easement Programs Financial Assistance (FA) and Technical Assistance (TA) Funds Assessment (published January 27, 2021). An agency National Bulletin (NB-440-21-11) was issued providing NRCS State Conservationists guidance for submitting FY2021 easement funding requests.
Each fiscal year, the NRCS Easement Programs Division assesses the status of easement program fund obligations to consider states’ needs. In FY 2021, funds were distributed to all states and the Caribbean and Pacific Islands Areas to encourage nationwide program implementation regardless of previous participation. There is now an opportunity for states to return excess funds for other states to utilize.
States that did not initially receive enough funds to cover all qualifying applications will have upcoming opportunities to request more funding. As an eligible entity, now is the time to reach out to state ACEP-ALE contacts to ensure the state is requesting needed funds to cover eligible applications. Per NB-440-21-11, all easement program fund requests must be submitted for each program by close of business on the following dates:
- February 12, 2021
- April 1, 2021
- July 1, 2021
Prepare to Acquire
More information coming soon!
Steward the Easement
More information coming soon!
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