Draft House Farm Bill: Conservation
April 14, 2018
NSAC Members at Fox Hollow Farm, Kentucky. Winter Meeting 2017. Photo credit: Reana Kovalcik.
This is the fifth post in a multi-part blog series analyzing the draft farm bill released on April 12, 2018 by House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway (R-TX). Other posts in this series focus on: beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers, crop insurance and commodity subsidies, local/regional food systems and rural development, research and seed breeding, and organic agriculture. The bill is expected to be considered and “marked-up” (aka amended) by the full Agriculture Committee this week and on the House floor in May.
The farm bill’s voluntary conservation programs are immensely popular, both with farmers and with sustainability advocates. These programs – including the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) – help farmers to navigate the often complicated and costly path toward more sustainable operations. Many of the programs are so popular, in fact, that they are routinely oversubscribed due to underfunding and regularly turn away as many as 75 percent of qualified applicants.
Given the popularity of these programs, and the increasing need to protect water resources and mitigate climate, one would hope that our leaders in Congress would choose to help farmers stay profitable and sustainable by investing in on-farm working lands conservation programs. Instead, however, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway’s (R-TX) draft bill chose to propose a massive cut to working lands conservation and gut the nation’s premier working lands program – CSP. CSP is the only program that provides participants with comprehensive conservation support to address natural resource concerns; farmers are currently using the program on over 72 million acres across the country. For more details on how the Chairman’s proposal affects CSP and working lands conservation, download our CSP fact sheet.
Though several individual programs did receive increased funding in the draft bill, conservation takes a nearly $1 billion overall cut over 10 years. This proposed cut is on top of the $4 billion hit that the conservation title took in the last farm bill, and the ongoing year-by-year cut made on top of that due to what Congress refers to as budget sequestration.
We are also disappointed that, despite broad, bipartisan support in Congress and among farmers for programs and policies that support improved soil health, the Chairman failed to include critical reforms that would have strengthened and expanded these efforts. In the House, the Strengthening our Investment in Land (SOIL) Stewardship Act, which was endorsed by the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition(NSAC) and other farm and conservation organizations and co-sponsored by several members of the House Agriculture Committee, laid out a comprehensive path for increasing the focus on soil health and water quality within existing conservation programs. Ignoring these recommendations shows a disregard for the many farmers that have supported the SOIL Stewardship Act, and who have for years called for increased support in building soil health.
Below, we include a summary of the key takeaways on how the Chairman’s mark approaches farm bill conservation programs and policies.
- Increases funding for the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) to $500 million per year. This is a reversal of the significant cut that resulted from consolidating easement programs into ACEP in the last farm bill, and provides additional funding to preserve working farms and ranches, and restore, protect, and enhance wetlands and grasslands through long-term easements.
- Eliminates the requirement that at least 60 percent of total EQIP funding go to support livestock operations. Historically, this set-aside has led to a significant portion of EQIP awards funding concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). Eliminating this set-aside may help to ensure that EQIP funding reflects demand.
- Adds authorization for on-farm conservation innovation trials within the Conservation Innovation Grant (CIG) program, with payments going directly to producers for taking on new conservation activities.
- Increases the total acreage that can be enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) Grasslands Initiative, through which ranchers maintain and enhance conservation cover on working grazing lands.
- Increases the acreage that U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) can enroll in CRP to 29 million acres. Unfortunately, this expansion comes at the expense of incentives and payment rates that are necessary to encourage enrollment of conservation buffers and other key water and soil health activities within the continuous CRP enrollment option. Although the bill allows for longer-term contracts for continuous enrollment, it also cuts the payment rate for those high environmental payoff acres by 30 percent, negating the benefit.
- Increases baseline funding for the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP), but fails to include critical reforms to the program, such as: allowing organizations to receive funding for outreach and technical assistance, increasing emphasis on conservation outcomes, or increasing the funding allocation of projects selected at the state level to ensure state and local concerns are addressed.
- Cuts total funding for the conservation title by nearly $1 billion. Within the title, the bill cuts funding for working lands conservation programs by nearly $5 billion over 10 years.
- Eliminates the funding and authority for CSP, the nation’s largest conservation program and only comprehensive conservation program offered through USDA. The bill proposes to fold CSP into EQIP, but does not retain CSP’s advanced conservation activities, and also cuts total working lands conservation funding (see above).
- Replaces CSP with a “stewardship contracts” component within EQIP, which lacks the most important defining features of the program and does not retain an equal split in funding between EQIP cost share and stewardship contracts. The failure of this approach is detailed in our CSP Fact Sheet.
- Fails to provide the authority and funding for USDA to measure, evaluate, and report on conservation outcomes associated with conservation programs, as included in the bipartisan Healthy Fields and Farm Economies Act, missing an important opportunity for program accountability and improvement.
- Weakens wetlands conservation compliance, and fails to extend grassland protection (aka “Sodsaver”) to the entire country, keeping it relevant only for portions of the Northern Plains.
- Includes several problematic Agricultural Land Easement (part of ACEP) policy changes, including stepping back conservation planning requirements and eliminating income eligibility requirements.
- Attacks and weakens the Endangered Species Act by allowing the approval of pesticides without considering the impact on endangered species.
Conservation, Energy & Environment, Farm Bill