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Senate Agriculture Committee Examines Conservation Options for Next Farm Bill

July 5, 2017


Senate Agriculture Committee Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow (D-MI). Photo credit, Senate.gov.

On-farm, voluntary conservation programs – such as the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) – provide farmers with the tools, technical assistance, and financial support they need to make their operations more sustainable and resilient. The farm bill, our nation’s largest and most significant package of food and farm funding legislation, sets the policy that supports private lands conservation and stewardship efforts. The farm bill also sets mandatory funding levels for many food and farm programs, including US Department of Agriculture (USDA) conservation programs.

On Thursday, June 29, the Senate Agriculture Committee held a hearing to identify opportunities to improve and build upon conservation and forestry programs in the 2018 Farm Bill.

The hearing consisted of two panels that each brought together USDA officials and the farmers, ranchers, and foresters who have seen first-hand the benefits of farm bill conservation programs. In her opening remarks, Ranking Member Senator Debbie Stabenow (D- MI) noted the significance of and critical need for USDA conservation programs and the economic opportunities that they provide:

“With 70 percent of US land privately owned, our farmers, ranchers, and foresters are the original conservationists and our first responders to sustain the health and diversity of our natural resources. However, they should not have to bear this responsibility alone. The farm bill provides important conservation and forestry tools that help farmers and foresters keep our water clean, improve the resiliency of our landscapes, and protect habitat for wildlife. In addition to these important environmental benefits, conservation and forestry also create economic opportunities. I’ve always said that the farm bill is a jobs bill—and conservation and forestry is no exception.”

While congressional support for on-farm conservation programs has generally improved since 1985, when the first Conservation Title was added as part of the farm bill, the Title suffered some significant setbacks in the 2014 Farm Bill when conservation spending was cut for the first time since the 1985 bill. In the 2014 Farm Bill, Congress cut the Conservation Title by $4 billion over ten years; the figure rises to $6 billion when the across-the-board budget cut mechanism known as sequestration is factored in. The impacts of these cuts, as well as the need for programmatic changes in the 2018 Farm Bill’s Conservation Title, were reflected by members of the Agriculture Committee and the witnesses throughout the hearing.

To learn more about the on-the-ground impact of voluntary USDA conservation programs, see NSAC’s June 2018 “farmer fly-in” blog.

Demand for Working Lands Programs Remains High

As part of the hearing’s first panel, Deputy Chief for Programs at USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Jimmy Bramblett discussed the oversubscription and growing demand for working lands conservation programs. He highlighted CSP and EQIP, the heart of USDA’s working lands conservation portfolio, and explained that updates made to CSP over the past year have further increased producer interest in enrolling in the whole-farm conservation program.

The importance of conservation support was also reflected in the testimony of many of the witnesses on the second panel. Paul Dees, a corn, rice, and soybean farmer from Mississippi outlined for the Committee the challenges he has encountered as a result of high demand for CSP’s limited program funds:

“While CSP has been successful, the consensus in our region suggests it is not adequately funded. 154 eligible producers, including myself, have unfunded applications in my county and those that surround it. Many more producers have not even applied because of the lack of funds.”

Bramblett highlighted the enormous soil health benefits that EQIP practices confer to farmers; EQIP provides support for a variety of soil-boosting practices, including cover cropping, conservation tillage, conservation crop rotations, and prescribed grazing. Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) emphasized the important role that voluntary programs like EQIP play for beginning farmers in particular. The Senator then asked Mr. Bramblett for an update on what NRCS is currently doing to ensure that new and beginning farmers can access and benefit from these programs. Mr. Bramblett noted for the Committee that both CSP and EQIP include funding set-asides for beginning, socially disadvantaged, and limit resource producers, and both also feature higher cost share rates and advance payment options for these producers.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) has helped to create and implement many of today’s most important agricultural conservation programs, and we remain committed to continuing to expand access to these programs for historically underserved producers in the next farm bill. We will also continue to work with our partners at USDA and in Congress to ensure that these crucial programs are designed and funded in a way that allows them to deliver the most efficient and effective support to farmers and achieve the highest net environmental benefits.

Partnership Programs Need Additional Flexibility

Many of Committee Members and the expert witnesses also spoke about the importance of the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP), which was created in the 2014 Farm Bill. RCPP is unique in that it brings farmers and ranchers to the table to address resource concerns while also leveraging private funding and directly involving partners (such as producer associations, state/local governments, farmer cooperatives, organizations, universities and others) in project development and implementation.

In his testimony, Executive Vice President of the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation Adam Sharp stressed the Farm Bureau’s promotion of working lands programs over land retirement programs, explaining that RCPP brought critical water quality benefits to the western Lake Erie watershed. NSAC believes that working lands conservation programs like CSP, EQIP, and RCPP must be protected and enhanced in the next farm bill in order to ensure farmers and ranchers have the tools they need to protect natural resources, while simultaneously maintaining profitable operations.

Sharp, as well as several Senators, highlighted the importance of ensuring that RCPP has the flexibility it needs to address the unique needs of a variety of regions and partners across the country. In particular, we at NSAC are urging Congress to provide appropriate flexibility in the 2018 Farm Bill so that RCPP’s partners can innovate and better provide the technical assistance, including outreach and coordination, for these public-private partnerships.

Need to Shore Up Land Protection Programs

Last week’s hearing also focused on land protection programs, including the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and the Agriculture Conservation Easement Program (ACEP). The expert witnesses stressed that demand for these programs outstrips available funding – making it difficult for the programs to serve the farmers that are actively seeking USDA support.

NRCS administers wetland, grassland, and agricultural land easements through ACEP. The program’s low acceptance rates, according to Mr. Bramblett, were not a result of lack of qualified applicants, but an issue of limited program resources. The 2014 Farm Bill consolidated several easement programs into ACEP and also lowered authorized funding levels over the course of the 5-year bill. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) questioned Mr. Bramblett as to the expected impact of this decline in fiscal year (FY) 2018, when only $250 million in funding will be available (half the authorized level that was available in FY 2017).

Mr. Bramblett confirmed that he didn’t expect demand to drop next year, and thus it was possible that NRCS would only be able to fund as few as 7 percent of applications in FY 2018. NSAC believes that it is critical that Congress return ACEP to its historical funding levels in the 2018 Farm bill so that the program can begin to address and serve the overwhelming backlog of farmers interested in conservation easement support.

One of the more contentious issues regarding conservation and the 2018 Farm Bill — whether or not to raise the acreage cap for CRP — got quite a bit of attention at the hearing. Given that commodity prices are low, interest in CRP has spiked and many are pushing for a significant increase in the number of acres that USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) is authorized to enroll.

One of NSAC’s priorities for CRP in the next farm bill is that program dollars are targeted to protect the most highly sensitive land. We are also working to ensure that critical partial field practices (e.g., filter strips, riparian buffers, grassed waterways, contour grass strips, and other conservation practices) remain available and properly incentivized through Continuous CRP (CCRP). Any increase to CRP in the next farm bill will carry a hefty price tag. Given the fiscally conservative nature of Congress, there may be an attempt to raid other conservation programs in order to pay for a CRP expansion. NSAC will work with members of the Agriculture Committee to ensure that any expansion in the CRP cap does not come at the expense of working lands programs like CSP and EQIP.

While expansion of CRP dominated much of the conversation about the program, several witnesses also expressed concern over the impact that taking large swaths of land out of production could have on beginning farmers who need access to affordable farmland to start their careers in agriculture. Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA) asked the panel whether idling whole farms through CRP is truly the best use of taxpayer dollars. She went on to provide several real life examples of young farmers that had experienced roadblocks in accessing farmland because the CRP rental rates were above what they could afford to pay.

Officials from both NRCS and FSA both told the Committee that they support a careful balance between working lands conservation support and land retirement. As we move toward the next farm bill, NSAC will continue to advance opportunities to protect the most sensitive acres, while also working to ensure that farmers and ranchers have the tools they need to actively manage land currently in production.

Protecting Conservation Compliance

While the majority of discussion and questions focused on specific working lands and land protection programs, Senator Stabenow also noted that the re-linking of conservation requirements to crop insurance subsidies through conservation compliance was a critically important win from the 2014 Farm Bill.

“The 2014 Farm Bill also included a linchpin agreement to protect highly erodible soils and wetlands[…] Maintaining this agreement will be critical.”

Conservation compliance requires that in order to receive any form of USDA payments, producers cannot drain or fill wetlands, or expand the scope of existing drainage on farmed wetlands. Additionally, they need to have a soil conservation plan in place if they farm highly erodible land. The basic idea, which NSAC will seek to protect and strengthen in the next farm bill, is that farmers should practice at least basic conservation in return for government subsidies.

What Happens Next?

The House and Senate will continue to hold additional farm bill hearings in DC, as well as field hearings and listening sessions across the country. The 2014 Farm Bill expires September 30, 2018, and the future of the conservation programs discussed at last week’s hearing depends upon the timely passage of the 2018 bill. Stay tuned to NSAC’s blogs and email alerts as we continue to monitor and provide updates on the Conservation Title and key sustainable agriculture programs under consideration in the upcoming farm bill.


Categories: Conservation, Energy & Environment, Farm Bill


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