NSAC's Blog


A Closer Look at the 2018 Farm Bill: Working Lands Conservation Programs

January 14, 2019


California buffer strip, one of many conservation practices supported by the farm bill's working lands conservation programs. Photo credit: USDA NRCS.
California buffer strip, one of many conservation practices supported by the farm bill’s working lands conservation programs. Photo credit: USDA NRCS.

Editor’s Note: This is the first post in a multi-part blog series digging deeper into some of the programs and policies of the 2018 Farm Bill. These posts will detail how the new farm bill is likely to impact core sustainable agriculture programs administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.  Subsequent posts will focus on: local/regional food systems, nutrition incentive and anti-hunger programs, and beginning/socially disadvantaged farmers.

With the 2018 Farm Bill signed into law last month, farmers and ranchers committed to improving their farms’ resiliency and profitability now need to understand how changes in federal conservation programs might impact them. The farm bill’s Conservation Title affects numerous programs and policies that play a critical role in supporting farmers’ efforts improve water quality, soil health, and other natural resources on agricultural land across the country. In our previous 2018 Farm Bill conservation post, we provided an overview of wins, losses, and general changes of note in the bill’s Conservation Title. In this post, we’ll dig even deeper into the Conservation Title by analyzing the farm bill’s effect on working lands conservation programs.  

Working lands conservation programs help farmers to enhance the sustainability of their operations while keeping land in production. The two primary farm bill programs that support these efforts are: the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). Together, CSP and EQIP provide significant financial and technical assistance to farmers and ranchers across the country looking to maintain or improve their land stewardship. Working lands conservation programs not only improve natural resource stewardship, they also help farmers to increase their profitability (ex. lowering costs by using less inputs) and longevity of their operations. 

Despite their myriad benefits, working lands conservation programs were at the center of major conflicts during the 2018 Farm Bill debates. In the final bill, conservation advocates in Congress were able to secure level-funding for the Conservation Title overall, but working lands conservation programs took a significant hit – particularly CSP. Even though farm bill implementation is currently on hold as a result of the partial government shutdown, farmers and advocates will want to get up to speed quickly on the changes (good, bad, and in-between) made to working lands conservation programs so that they can be in the best position to advance sustainable agriculture in the years to come.  

Structure of Working Lands Conservation Programs 

While complementary, the farm bill’s two core working lands conservation programs (CSP and EQIP) are fundamentally different both in their approaches to advancing conservation and in how they target support and funds to farmers. During the 2018 Farm Bill debate, one of the biggest points of contention was around a proposal from the House to completely eliminate CSP and fold a limited number of its functionalities into EQIP. Thanks to advocacy from NSAC and many other farm and conservation groups, however, this attempt to eliminate the nation’s premier working lands conservation program ultimately failed. 

The final version of the 2018 Farm Bill retains CSP and EQIP as stand-alone programs and preserves their unique functions and objectives. CSP’s focus is to provide comprehensive conservation assistance to address multiple resource concerns across an entire operation, whereas EQIP offers cost share payments for individual conservation practices. Ideally, EQIP would serve as a stepping stone program that would allow producers to start with targeted conservation efforts and then graduate into the whole-farm and longer-term conservation activities supported by CSP. 

In addition to protecting CSP and EQIP’s integrity as unique programs, the 2018 Farm Bill also made important structural reforms to increase  coordination between the two working lands programs. NSAC was a vocal advocate for increased coordination between these two programs, and helped to advance this language in several farm bill marker bills, including the GROW Act and SOIL Stewardship Act.  

The final 2018 Farm Bill directs NRCS to increase coordination between CSP and EQIP applications, contracting planning, practices, and administrative processes. While we are pleased that these provisions will help farmers looking to advance their conservation efforts move more seamlessly from EQIP to CSP, we are disappointed that the final bill did not include a provision to allow for automatic graduation from EQIP to CSP where eligibility requirements are met. Automatic graduation from EQIP to CSP would have dramatically increased the number of farmers transitioning to advanced conservation practices by further reducing paperwork and administrative burdens.  

NSAC is also pleased that the 2018 Farm Bill includes increased payments for high level conservation activities like resource conserving crop rotations, advanced grazing management, and cover crop activities. Additionally, the bill authorizes for the first time a payment for comprehensive conservation planning, which will ensure participants have the support they need to take their stewardship efforts to the next level. Both of these provisions were included in the GROW Act and SOIL Stewardship Act thanks to the tireless work of our congressional champions and the conservation advocates who worked alongside them throughout the farm bill process. 

It is important to note, however, that the significant funding cuts made to working lands conservation programs over the next ten years will  ultimately reduce the impacts of these positive policy changes by dramatically reducing the number of farmers able to take advantage of them. 

Funding 

Conservation Title spending in the 2018 Farm Bill totaled nearly $60 billion over the ten-year scoring window of the bill. Overall, this funding level is the same as what was provided in the 2014 Farm Bill, however, there were some major shifts in funding distribution within the title.  

NSAC is extremely disappointed, for example, that necessary increases for several farm bill conservation programs were granted at the expense of funding for CSP. Because there was no net increase in funding (and likewise no restoration of the $6 billion cut that the Conservation Title took in the last farm bill), funding increases for smaller conservation programs were provided by taking money out of CSP. 

However, the cuts to CSP will not be immediately apparent. Because CSP contracts operate in five-years blocks, the funding for new and existing contracts will not see an overall decrease during this five-year farm bill cycle. The 2018 Farm Bill does, however, create a $5 billion hole in the total amount of funding that will be available for working lands conservation programs. If these shortsighted cuts are not reversed in the next farm bill, farmers will feel significant effects in future years. 

Through the combination of funding for existing contracts plus new CSP contracts, CSP funding will not see an overall decrease during this five-year farm bill cycle. However, when Congress sits down to write the next farm bill, they will have $5 billion less in working lands conservation funds to work with (the 2018 Farm Bill cuts are spread out over a ten-year period). For additional details on the 2018 Farm Bill’s impact on working lands and other conservation program funding, see NSAC’s “Farm Bill by the Numbers” blog. 

Implementation Timeline 

For fiscal year (FY) 2019, the new farm bill directs USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to continue operating EQIP and CSP (and a majority of other farm bill conservation programs) under the rules of the 2014 Farm Bill. This delay is necessary so that NRCS can solicit and receive public feedback as part of their development of rules and implementation guidance.  

At present, detailed timelines for FY 2019 conservation program enrollment periods have not yet been released. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) has urged NRCS to move forward with those sign-up as quickly as possible, and will continue working closely with the Administration to ensure sign-ups are rolled out expediently. Initial EQIP sign-ups did begin late last year (because the program had available funds), but NRCS has yet to initiate the FY 2019 CSP sign-up process.  

What to Watch for As Implementation Moves Forward 

As a result of the partial government shutdown, which is now the longest lapse in federal funding in history, we do not yet know exactly when USDA will be able to begin the rulemaking and implementation phases of the 2018 Farm Bill. We can however, gain some insight as to how the process might move forward by looking back at the 2014 Farm Bill.  

Following the passage of the last farm bill in February of 2014, the CSP interim final rule was released in November and the EQIP interim final rule published in December 2014 – so roughly ten months after farm bill passage. Interim final rules are effective immediately, but do allow an opportunity for public comment following their publication. The final rule for CSP was released in March of 2016, with the final rule for EQIP following shortly after in May of 2016. 

Assuming a similar timeline, we would anticipate that the interim rules for EQIP and CSP would be released later this year. As opportunities arise, NSAC will work with NRCS to ensure that rulemaking and implementation decisions allow for maximum conservation benefits and accessibility. With much about this “second stage” of the farm bill still unclear, the following two sections outline key issues that NSAC will be watching as these processes move forward. 

What to Watch for: CSP 

Grassland Conservation Initiative – The 2018 Farm Bill establishes a new Grassland Conservation Initiative within CSP. This initiative provides payments for farms that had previously received commodity payments for base acres that had been entirely in grass for the past decade. As a result of Title I changes to the farm bill, these acres are no longer eligible for commodity payments. Instead, farmers can opt to receive a one-time option to enroll in CSP for 5 years at a set rate. This puts CSP in the position of having to solve a problem that should have been addressed within Title I. In the implementation process, NSAC will be looking to ensure that this opportunity for CSP enrollment provides true grassland protection and enhancement of conservation benefits for participants who select the option. 

Payments for Advanced Activities – One of the major wins for sustainability advocates in the 2018 Farm Bill was the increasing of payments authorized for conservation activities like cover crops, resource conserving crop rotations, advanced grazing management. As previously mentioned, the bill also increased payments for comprehensive conservation planning. In order for these wins to take root, however, they must be implemented in a way that offers payment rates adequate enough to incentivize producers to take on advanced conservation activities. 

Renewal Opportunities – The final farm bill modifies the process through which existing CSP contracts can be renewed. Under the 2014 Farm Bill, participants with expiring contracts could opt to renew their contract for an additional 5 year period and be guaranteed a new contract so long as they met the terms of the original contract and agreed to adopt additional conservation as part of the next contract. The 2018 Farm Bill changes the renewal process such that participants can apply to renew, but they must compete for the same total pot of funding as new contracts (previously, funding for renewals was guaranteed). NSAC will be watching the implementation of this change to ensure that the conservation benefits achieved through an initial contract are appropriately considered for those applying to renew, as those gains should make them extremely competitive within the total ranking pool. 

Prioritize Conservation Benefits within Ranking Process – Important policy changes to simplify the ranking process and stewardship threshold definition were made in the 2018 Farm Bill. NSAC will work to ensure that implementation reflects Congress’ intent to increase program flexibility/accessibility and their intent to emphasize conservation benefits. 

New Dollar-Based Program – The farm bill transitions CSP from an acreage-based to dollar-based program, and in doing so also eliminates the $18 per acre average payment rate that had been previously included. While there is no longer statutory direction as to the average payment rate or total acres enrolled in the new farm bill, NSAC urges NRCS to focus available funding on the most effective practices. The 2018 Farm Bill directs NRCS to produce a report looking at the most expensive practices and to determine if payments can be reduced – NSAC will seek to ensure that available dollars aren’t sucked up by expensive practices with low conservation benefits, but that they are instead targeted to the most effective practices. 

What to Watch for: EQIP 

Irrigation District Eligibility – EQIP eligibility is expanded in this farm bill to include irrigation districts, which will be able to use the new authority to enroll large scale infrastructure projects. While the need to address drought (especially in western states) is important, it will be critical to ensure that implementation of this provision does not come at the expense of farmers who rely on EQIP to advance conservation practices. Unfortunately, the 2018 Farm Bill allows for an unlimited amount of funding to go to irrigation districts or similar entities, so it will be critical for stakeholders to monitor and provide clear implementation guidance on this provision. 

EQIP Incentive Contracts  The final farm bill includes a new component within EQIP called Incentive Contracts. This is largely modeled off of the House’s “Stewardship Contracts” proposal, which was intended as a replacement for CSP. There is no total amount of funding assigned to Incentive Contracts within EQIP, so it will be important to watch how this is rolled out. NSAC will be specifically watching to see if NRCS attempts to use EQIP Incentive Contracts as a substitute for CSP.

Changes to Livestock Set Aside – The farm bill decreases the percentage of total EQIP funding reserved for livestock contracts from 60 to 50 percent, and it also makes clear that the livestock allocation should include grazing practices. NRCS should promote the inclusion of grazing practices within the livestock set aside, as opposed to directing that funding toward concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). 

Advance Payment Improvements – In an effort to ensure historically underserved EQIP participants can access the upfront financial support they need to implement conservation practices, the new farm bill makes important changes to the program’s advance payment option. All beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers enrolling in EQIP will now be provided the option to receive 50 percent of cost share payment up front thanks to these changes. Under the 2014 Farm Bill, this option was shockingly under-promoted by USDA and, as a result, under-utilized. NSAC, therefore, urges NRCS to actively promote this option under the 2018 Farm Bill in order to increase utilization rates. 

Farmer and Stakeholder Input Needed in 2019 

As NRCS moves forward with implementing the 2018 Farm Bill, farmers and other stakeholders will play a critical role in ensuring that working lands conservation programs are accessible and effective. The public will have an opportunity to weigh in on the specifics of these programs throughout the rule-making process, and NSAC will publicize all opportunities for submitting comments and recommendations. When new opportunities to participate in EQIP and CSP are finally available, it will also be critical for all stakeholders to help get the word out so that all qualified farmers looking to advance conservation on their operations have a chance to access these resources.


Categories: Carousel, Conservation, Energy & Environment, Farm Bill


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