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2018 Farm Bill Drilldown: Conservation

December 13, 2018


Bumble Bee on Prairie Clover. Photo Credit USDA

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth post in a multi-part blog series analyzing the final 2018 Farm Bill, which was released on December 11, 2018 by the leaders of the Farm Bill Conference Committee. Subsequent posts focus on: research and seed breeding, and crop insurance and commodity subsidies; previous posts focused on local and regional food and beginning/socially disadvantaged farmers, and organic agriculture. The bill was passed by the House and Senate this week and sent to the President for his signature.

Farmers rely on the programs of the farm bill’s Conservation Title programs to help them make their farms more resilient and productive. Programs like the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) provide the technical and financial resources for farmers to improve the soil health, water quality, and wildlife habitats on and surrounding their operations. The sustainability and risk management benefits of implementing agriculture conservation activities are huge, and  the annual funding level for the conservation title programs approaches $6 billion a year. Not surprisingly, then, the Conservation Title was one of the most challenging and controversial titles of the farm bill to negotiate.

Major differences between the House and Senate-passed bills, including a broadly opposed House proposal to eliminate CSP, meant that advocates like the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) had to work overtime to protect vital sustainable agriculture programs and practices. NSAC took a strong stand against the House-proposed CSP elimination, cuts to total conservation funding, and anti-environmental riders, and also fought for the inclusion of policy provisions to increase the effectiveness of and access to conservation programs.

Overall, we are pleased that the final farm bill takes the Senate’s structural approach to the Conservation Title. The bill protects against cuts to total conservation funding and retains the full farm bill suite of conservation programs –including leaving CSP as a standalone program. We also applaud farm bill leaders for including key policy provisions to strengthen conservation programs and increase benefits for soil health and water quality. Many of these provisions were included in the SOIL Stewardship Act (H.R. 5188/ S. 2875) and the GROW Act (S. 2557). NSAC strongly endorsed both these bills, and thanks the Senators and Representatives who championed these and other conservation priorities in the final bill.

While the new farm bill makes some important strides forward on conservation, we are disappointed that long-term funding for working lands conservation programs will be significantly cut. The bill cuts future funding from CSP, and will result in $5.2 billion less funds available for working lands conservation in the next farm bill. This all but guarantees a tough, uphill battle to restore working lands and comprehensive conservation funding in the future.

Below, we include a summary of the key takeaways on how the final conferenced bill approaches programs and policies that support conservation:

Highlights

  • Protects total funding levels for the Conservation Title as a whole.
  • Incentivizes the adoption of cost-effective, high payoff activities within CSP by increasing payment levels for cover crops, resource conserving crop rotations, and management-intensive rotational grazing.
  • Authorizes a CSP payment for financial and technical assistance to support the development of comprehensive conservation plans, which are fundamental to reaching higher levels of stewardship. The authorized payment would reflect the complexity of a plan’s development.
  • Ensures that all beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers enrolling in the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) have the option to receive 50 percent of their cost share payment up front.
  • Increases the wildlife habitat set-aside with EQIP from 5 to 10 percent of total funding.
  • Authorizes a CSP “organic initiative,” including an allocation of funds for certified organic participants and those transitioning to organic production.
  • Within ACEP, prioritizes projects that maintain farm viability and includes affordability protections.
  • Establishes a Clean Lakes, Estuaries, and Rivers (CLEAR) initiative within the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and reserves 40 percent of total continuous CRP acreage for water quality beneficial conservation buffer practices through CLEAR.
  • Includes the Senate provision to increase funding for the Conservation Reserve Program – Transition Incentives Program (CRP-TIP) from $33 million to $50 million over the next five years – including $5 million for dedicated outreach to connect retiring farmers with beginning farmers, veterans, and farmers of color.
    • The bill also expands eligibility to all CRP contract holders, not just retiring farmers. Additionally, within CRP-TIP, participating farmers are now able to get a two-year head start on certifying land coming out of CRP into organic production.
  • Increases CRP Grassland Initiative to 2 million acres by 2023, through which ranchers can maintain and enhance conservation cover on working grazing lands.

Mixed Bag

  • Retains a relatively equal balance between EQIP and CSP funding from fiscal year (FY) 2019-FY 2023. However, the bill significantly redistributes funding from CSP to EQIP in the following five years of the budgetary funding window (FY 2024- FY 2028) and on into the future, greatly diminishing overall working lands conservation funding in the future.
  • Authorizes a new Conservation Grassland Initiative within CSP to attempt to compensate farms with commodity base acres that have been entirely in grass for the past decade for a provision in the new farm bill that will deny them commodity payments. Those grass-based farms will get a one-time option to enroll in CSP for 5 years at $18 an acre. This takes additional funding out of CSP in the first few years of the farm bill that should have been paid for out of the commodity title.
  • Increases the EQIP Organic Initiative payment cap to $140,000 over 5 years, but does not completely eliminate the differentiated payment rules that are biased against organic farms. The bill also does not provide for allocation of funds within EQIP for certified organic participants and those transitioning to organic production.
  • Provides for coordination between EQIP and CSP processes, but does not authorize graduation from EQIP to CSP when meeting two priority resource concerns, as was included in the Senate-passed bill.
  • Decreases the livestock set-aside within EQIP from 60 to 50 percent but does not include any reforms to limit funding to new and expanding concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs).
  • Increases funding for RCPP to $300 million per year and does not pull funding from the underlying farm bill conservation programs. The revised RCPP now also increases the funding allocation going to states from 35 to 50 percent. However, the final bill includes a modified version of language from the Senate-passed bill that could take a significant portion of the funding and turn it over to private entities to administer with no assurance of public accountability for the expenditure of taxpayer dollars.
  • Sets rental rates for CRP at 85 percent of county average for general enrollment and 90 percent for continuous. With incentive payments for partial field enrollments and beneficial practices within the continuous enrollment option, however, payments can still end up closer to 100 percent. However, for general enrollments, the change all but guarantees a much worse cost to benefit outcome, a negative result that could have been easily overcome with a less meat ax approach.

Lowlights

  • Cuts long term funding for CSP in the out years (FY 2024–FY 2029), meaning that over $5 billion less will be available for CSP and EQIP in baseline for the next farm bill (as compared to current authority).
  • Expands eligibility for EQIP to include irrigation districts and fails to include important sideboards that would protect against large construction projects limiting total funding available for farmers.
  • Steps back conservation planning requirements within the Agricultural Land Easement component of ACEP by only requiring a conservation plan for highly erodible land. This change weakens the conservation focus of protected agricultural land.
  • Fails to increase the set-asides within EQIP and CSP for beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers from 5 to 15 percent, which was recommended in both the GROW Act and the SOIL Stewardship Act. Set-asides for beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers within these programs have not increased since they were established in the 2008 Farm Bill, despite the fact that participation and demand from these groups has significantly increased.
  • Fails to include a provision from the House’s Healthy Fields and Farm Economies Act that would have provided the authority and funding for USDA to measure, evaluate, and report on conservation outcomes associated with conservation programs. This eliminates what could have been a key opportunity to improve program accountability.

Categories: Conservation, Energy & Environment, Farm Bill


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