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Path to the 2018 Farm Bill: Comprehensive Conservation Reform

November 17, 2017


Capella Farm, conservation activities. Photo credit: Caitlin Joseph.

Capella Farm. Photo credit: Caitlin Joseph.

Editor’s Note: On October 24, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) released its 2018 Farm Bill policy platform, An Agenda for the 2018 Farm Bill, which provides a comprehensive vision for a more sustainable farm and food system based on the recommendations and experience of American family farmers and the organizations that represent them. This is the third post in a multi part series detailing NSAC’s policy platform for the 2018 Farm Bill.

Environmental challenges are not new to farmers and ranchers; most have been battling the elements in one way or another for the entire career. What is new, however, is the extremity and frequency of those challenges. Producers are increasingly struggling to mitigate and adapt to the impacts of extreme weather, soil and plant health issues, and issues with pests and invasive species. It is no small wonder, given the challenges posed by nature, that for most farmers conservation is second nature. By implementing conservation activities on their farms, producers can both improve the resiliency and productivity of their own operations, and also protect and enhance shared natural resources.

Given the wide ranging benefits of conservation agriculture, as well as the increasingly extreme impacts of environmental disasters, the need for a farm bill that strongly supports federal conservation programs and policies is greater than ever.

Farm bill investment in conservation has come a long way since the first farm bills – between 1933 and 1985, there was no farm bill funding for conservation at all. The 1985 Farm Bill was the first to add a Conservation Title, and the first time conservation programs received direct farm bill funding. Conservation agriculture programs enjoyed broad support for decades – until the 2014 Farm Bill, which marked the first time that the Conservation Title was cut since its creation over three decades ago. Since passage of the 2014 Farm Bill, those cuts, totaling roughly $6 billion when automatic sequestration cuts are factored in, have severely hindered farmers’ ability to access conservation support.

The 2018 Farm Bill presents an opportunity to not only reverse those short-sighted cuts, but also to make much needed changes to programs that would both increase accessibility while also improving conservation outcomes. NSAC has a legacy of leadership in promoting agricultural conservation, which we will continue to build upon through the 2018 Farm Bill process.

NSAC’s 2018 Farm Bill platform lays out an ambitious agenda for how Congress and USDA can empower farmers and ranchers with the conservation skills, resources, and training necessary to ensure farms and food systems are resilient and healthy by:

  • Expanding access to working lands conservation programs
  • Targeting dollars to the most effective conservation activities and systems
  • Improving support for outreach, planning, and implementation
  • Increasing measurement, evaluation, and reporting of program outcomes

Expand Access to Working Lands Conservation Programs 

Farmers and ranchers know that conservation and profitability aren’t opposites, they go hand-in-hand. U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) conservation programs are immensely popular because they help farmers achieve both their conservation and their financial goals at the same time.

At the heart of USDA’s conservation portfolio are its two largest “working lands” conservation programs – the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), ­– which are administered by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). EQIP and CSP play unique roles in how they support and advance on-farm conservation, though generally producers will start with the more basic program offerings of EQIP and then “graduate” to using more advanced conservation activities with assistance from CSP. One thing both programs have in common, is that they are woefully underfunded given their popularity – in recent years, NRCS has regularly been forced to turn away up to three-quarters of eligible applicants to both CSP and EQIP due to insufficient farm bill funding.

To improve access to working lands conservation programs, the 2018 Farm Bill must:

  • Enhance coordination between EQIP and CSP, so that participants can easily graduate from the management component of EQIP into the more advanced conservation practices of CSP
  • Increase the average CSP payment rate to $23 per acre to better reflect the true costs of implementing conservation, while maintaining annual enrollment of 10 million new acres each year

NSAC’s farm bill policy platform also recognizes that beginning, socially disadvantaged, limited resource, organic and smaller acreage producers have unique and significant challenges in accessing federal conservation programs. The 2018 Farm Bill can make CSP and EQIP more accessible and useful for these farmers by:

  • Increasing the existing set-aside for beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers from 5 to 15 percent within both programs
  • Simplifying the EQIP advance payment option to ensure automatic enrollment for beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers
  • Eliminating the lower payment limit for the EQIP Organic Initiative and ensuring targeted organic initiatives, including state allocations, within both programs
  • Codifying the current CSP minimum payment of $1,500 to incentivize operations of all sizes

Target Dollars to the Most Effective Conservation Activities and Systems

In order to ensure that federal conservation programs are as impactful as possible, it’s not only critical to protect and increase funding for key programs, but also to target those investments toward the most effective conservation activities. The activities that result in the most significant environmental gains often require significant investments in funding, labor, and foregone income; federal programs must therefore set appropriate financial incentivizes that reflects the true costs of investment. Conversely, it is also critical to protect the integrity of these programs and ensure that support not go toward any activities with dubious net environmental benefits.

The following farm bill recommendations from NSAC’s policy platform will ensure that conservation dollars are used effectively and efficiently: 

  • Authorize supplemental CSP payments for livestock as well as crop farmers by adding management intensive rotational grazing to the existing supplemental payment options for resource-conserving crop rotations
  • Adjust EQIP payments to provide higher cost share rates for practices that involve active conservation land management, and lower the payment rate for structural practices
  • Reserve at least 40 percent of all Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres for continuous and Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) contracts, and provide incentive payments for all continuous practices

With such limited funding available for high level conservation activities, it is disappointing that NRCS has continued to squander conservation resources by allowing concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) to receive federal financial support for waste lagoons, animal mortality facilities, and waste treatment facilities. The environmental effects of expanding these operations have had severely negative impacts on water quality, air quality, and on the health of neighboring communities. Policies that would limit the amount of conservation dollars that support CAFOs in the next farm bill include:

Targeting conservation dollars doesn’t just mean by practice, but also by geography (i.e., areas with the greatest need). NSAC’s platform includes several farm bill proposals to ensure targeted, long-term conservation support is directed to the acres that need it most:

  • Authorize permanent CRP easements for land that has been enrolled in the program at least twice, land that exceeds a high level of erodibility, and riparian areas that farmers or landowners wish to maintain in buffers in perpetuity
  • Within the CRP Grasslands Initiative, prioritize land using managed rotational grazing
  • Increase funding for the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) to at least $500 million per year, which includes two focal areas – the Wetland Reserve Easement (WRE) component and the Agricultural Land Easement (ALE) component
  • Protect native grasslands nationwide by including the “American Prairies Conservation Act of 2017” (S. 1913, H.R. 3939) in the next farm bill in order to expand the “Sodsaver” provision to the entire country

Improve Support for Outreach, Planning, and Implementation

For conservation programs to be truly effective, they need to offer not only funding, but also technical and planning assistance to farmers. With the proper training, producers can learn to identify existing and potential opportunities for conservation on their operations, and then have the skills and confidence to map out how they will achieve their goals. NSAC believes that conservation plans must take a holistic or comprehensive approach in order to be truly effective and have lasting impacts. Comprehensive conservation plans go beyond mapping out a single practice to solve a single problem, and instead look at the entire suite of management activities that will support the producer in meeting their stewardship objectives. The following planning provisions are included in NSAC’s farm bill platform:

  • Explicitly authorize financial and technical assistance to allow farmers to develop comprehensive conservation plans within CSP
  • Require comprehensive conservation plans for ALE, including for lands that are neither Highly Erodible Lands (HEL) nor grasslands
  • Within the CRP Grasslands initiative, prioritize land operating under an approved comprehensive conservation plan, as well as land using managed rotational grazing

Many farmers and organizations NSAC works with have told us that direct technical support from NRCS was critical for farmers’ success in their conservation efforts. While there are alternative options for assistance through Conservation Technical Assistance (CTA) (which has discretionary funding made available through the annual appropriations process), this support does not replace the hands-on assistance that can be provided through NRCS. In order to support and enhance NRCS’ ability to deliver the technical assistance farmers need to successfully adopt high level conservation activities, the 2018 Farm Bill must:

  • Authorize USDA to provide Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) funding to project partners to conduct technical assistance and outreach to farmers and ranchers as part of an RCPP project
  • Ensure adequate, dedicated farm bill funding for enforcement of Conservation Compliance for Highly Erodible Land (HEL), and require a five percent spot check rate for each state

Increase Measurement, Evaluation, and Reporting of Program Outcomes

The success and permanence of conservation investments through the farm bill relies upon strong data that can show the true impact of these programs. Proper data and evaluation metrics are essential in order to define and communicate outcomes and justify the taxpayers’ investment in conservation. In order to ensure USDA and farmers have the information they need to keep conservation programs efficient and effective in the long-term, the 2018 Farm Bill should:

  • Authorize a Measurement, Evaluation, and Reporting (MER) system to assess the impacts of USDA programs, report on outcomes, and improve programs’ impact
  • Designate a fraction of all Title II mandatory conservation funding to be set aside for MER
  • Ensure MER includes collaboration with outside partners as well as a diverse advisory board

What’s Next for Conservation and the Farm Bill?

Our ability to restore our national commitment to conservation and recover the financial and resource losses caused by the policies of the 2014 Farm Bill will depend upon a coordinated grassroots and policy effort that engages stakeholders across the agricultural, conservation, and wildlife communities. For ongoing updates on NSAC’s 2018 Farm Bill conservation efforts, stay tuned to our conservation campaign page and our blog.


Categories: Conservation, Energy & Environment, Farm Bill, Grants and Programs


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