September 28, 2017
Conservation, agriculture, and wildlife organizations joined together this week to present a comprehensive list of recommendations for the conservation provisions of the upcoming 2018 Farm Bill. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) joined 25 other signatories in asking legislators to strengthen the next farm bill’s Conservation Title by improving and increasing funding for U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) conservation programs that help producers maintain and advance the health of their crops, soil, and water.
The priority proposals, which are detailed below, include:
At the top of the consensus group’s list of recommendations was a call for an increase in Conservation Title funding to address critical on-the-ground resource concerns. For the last 30 years Congress has acknowledged the universal importance of conservation in agriculture – conservation activities not only protect and enhance farmers’ yields, they also protect our shared natural resources and keep them resilient for generations to come – by growing their investment in conservation programs in each farm bill year since the Conservation Title was introduced (1985). Yet major challenges remain, including increasingly frequent and severe drought and flooding, ongoing water quality impairment issues, and soil and habitat loss.
In the 2014 Farm Bill, instead of building on successful investments, Congress switched directions and cut the Conservation Title by $4 billion over ten years; that number increases to $6 billion when across-the-board budget cuts are factored in. Since the 2014 Farm Bill passed, Congress has continued to raid conservation programs through the use of a peculiar congressional action known as “changes in mandatory program spending” or CHIMPs. CHIMPs provide a mechanism through which congressional appropriators can dip into farm bill-allocated funds and re-appropriate them for other uses.
The groups signed on to the consensus recommendations note the impacts that these cuts have had on farmers, ranchers, and natural resources around the country, and urge the House and Senate Agriculture Committees to reinvest in the Conservation Title in 2018:
We stand united in saying that cuts to farm bill conservation programs must come to an end, and that we now must reverse these cuts and bring conservation investments in line with resource need and producer demand. We also stand united on the fundamental point that no increases to specific conservation programs should come at the expense of any other Title II programs, nor compromise the conservation mission of these programs. We oppose cuts to overall conservation title funding as well as any cuts to one conservation program in favor of another.
Conservation challenges are constantly evolving, so our approaches and solutions must also adjust and improve over time. The consensus statement urges Congress to blaze a new path for conservation in the 2018 Farm Bill by taking a comprehensive approach to conservation policy and programs – one that adequately supports and respects our nation’s food producers, wildlife, natural resources, and rural communities.
The consensus document provides programmatic and funding recommendations for key conservation programs, including working lands programs like the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), as well as land protection programs like the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP). The recommendations also highlight key opportunities and challenges for a range of production systems and practices (e.g., organic production, rotational grazing, diversified crop rotations) and suggest specific programmatic changes that would better support beginning, socially disadvantaged, and limited resource producers.
Additionally, the recommendations provide guidance for enhancing the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP), which was created by consolidating several programs in the 2014 Farm Bill. The consensus recommendations call for increased flexibility within RCPP contracts, provided the changes ensure that conservation benefits and objectives are met.
Everyone knows that measuring and evaluating progress is a critical part of growth and success; this is as true in agriculture as it is in anything else. Many USDA programs, however, either have no measurement and evaluation tools in place, or inadequate ones. The consensus recommendations therefore call for Congress to provide USDA with the resources and authority to measure, evaluate, and report on conservation program outcomes:
While USDA has already taken important steps to assess conservation at the national, regional, and landscape level, a statutory requirement for measuring, evaluating, and reporting on program outcomes will help ensure that all the good work focusing on producing outcomes that is underway will continue, and funding would enable the furthering of these efforts and address resource constraints.
With program information in hand, USDA would be able to properly evaluate and improve the impact of key conservation programs and practices. They would also become more accountable to the farmers they serve and the taxpayers whose dollars make conservation programs possible.
Lastly, the consensus recommendations stress the importance of ensuring that conservation is intrinsically connected to crop insurance, commodity program subsidies, and other farm bill risk management benefits. The document suggests several ways to strengthen this linkage, including: improvement of conservation compliance enforcement, expansion of native sod protections, and better alignment of crop insurance with conservation practices.
In order to be eligible for most federal farm programs, including the taxpayer subsidized federal crop insurance program, farmers whose land includes highly erodible areas or wetlands must adhere to specific conservation requirements. These requirements, known collectively as “conservation compliance,” are in place to ensure that our shared natural resources have a minimum level of protection. NSAC and the conservation consensus organizations praised Congress’ re-linkage of conservation compliance to crop insurance premium subsidies in the 2014 Farm Bill, and also identified important next steps for the 2018 bill:
The 2018 Farm Bill must maintain the statutory linkage between soil and wetland conservation and farm support programs, while also ensuring adequate enforcement of conservation compliance through mandatory funding and increased spot check rates.
The groups also clearly outlined the current barriers inherent in some risk management programs that prevent many farmers and ranchers from implementing basic conservation activities on their lands. The recommendations include guidance for eliminating those barriers, as well as suggestions on how better data collection could be used to prevent future conflicts between USDA programs.
Next Steps and NSAC Priorities
The consensus recommendations recently delivered to Congress are complementary to NSAC’s own comprehensive farm bill recommendations, which will be released early next month. While each individual organization has their own specific priorities and objectives related to conservation activities and the upcoming farm bill, each also believes that collaboration and unification is essential for protecting and enhancing America’s family farms and our shared natural resources. As the farm bill process continues, NSAC looks forward to working with our members, our partners and allies in the conservation and farm advocacy communities, and with our champions in Congress.