Draft Senate Farm Bill: Conservation
June 8, 2018
Andreas Farm uses buffers to help improve water quality. Photo credit: USDA NRCS.
This is the first post in a multi-part blog series analyzing the draft farm bill released on June 7, 2018 by the Senate Agriculture Committee. Subsequent posts focus on: local/regional food systems and rural development, research and seed breeding, organic agriculture, beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers, and crop insurance and commodity subsidies. The bill is expected to be considered and “marked-up” (aka amended) by the full Agriculture Committee next Wednesday, June 13, and on the Senate floor later this month. We expect further improvements to the conservation provisions in the bill during mark-up and will report on those through updated and future posts.
Farmers and ranchers must overcome a number of challenges on a daily basis in order to maintain a successful and sustainable operation. Whether improving soil health, reducing runoff to enhance water quality, or protecting wildlife, many farmers rely on the farm bill’s Conservation Title programs for support to help make their farms more resilient and productive.
The Senate bill delivers several welcome improvements to and support for farm bill conservation programs. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) has applauded the Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-KS) and Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow (D-M) for delivering on their promise to develop a bipartisan bill – a marked improvement over the failed House draft farm bill, which proposes to reduce permanent baseline conservation funding by $1.5 billion, eliminate the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) altogether, and weaken many of the nation’s important environmental laws.
Overall, the draft Senate bill is a good starting point from which to strengthen and expand federal support for sustainable agriculture, though it does contain some concerning provisions. Among the most troublesome provisions is the cutting of much-needed funds from CSP and the Environmental Quality Incentives program (EQIP); these funds are re-purposed to support other programs in the Title. Though the Senate maintains the overall funding level for the Conservation Title, for which NSAC is very grateful, we do not believe that boosting one conservation program at the expense of another is a sustainable strategy.
Key policy reforms in the bipartisan bill include several programmatic improvements from the GROW Act and the SOIL Stewardship Act, which were both introduced by members of the Senate Agriculture Committee. These provisions make critical reforms to increase the effectiveness and accessibility of farm bill conservation programs that would help farmers to improve their soil health and water quality.
The bill also expands the Title’s support for organic agriculture and historically underserved producers, changes welcomed by NSAC.
Below, we include a summary of the key takeaways on how the Senate’s draft farm bill approaches conservation programs and policies.
- Incentivizes the adoption of key activities within CSP by increasing payment levels for cover crops, resource conserving crop rotations, and management-intensive rotational grazing.
- Authorizes a CSP payment for financial and technical assistance to support the development of comprehensive conservation plans, which are fundamental to reaching higher levels of stewardship. Comprehensive conservation plans can play a critical role in helping farmers to select the best and most appropriate enhancements for their operation, and the authorized payment would appropriately reflect the complexity of its development.
- Encourages the adoption of conservation activities within EQIP and CSP that protect sources of drinking water. Within EQIP, the bill also encourages NRCS to give priority to the conservation of the most effective practices to address natural resource concerns.
- Reduces the livestock set-aside within EQIP from 60 to 50 percent, and expands the set aside to ensure that it also includes grazing practices, rather than just concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs).
- Authorizes a CSP “Organic Initiative,” including an allocation of funds for certified organic participants and those transitioning to organic production.
- Modifies the advance payment option for beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers within EQIP, such that they automatically receive the advance payment option. This change will address the low utilization of the advance payment option, ensuring that all eligible EQIP applicants are aware of and supported by the option.
- Authorizes initiatives within the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), including the Clean Lakes, Estuaries and Rivers (CLEAR) Initiative and the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP), which provide targeted funding to protect critical resources.
- Authorizes Conservation Reserve Easements through an option to either enroll in a permanent easement or accept a much lower rental rate for reenrollment as a way to permanently protect land enrolled within CLEAR or the State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE) under the current farm bill. This provision will support beneficial conservation activities in perpetuity, and we would urge the Senate to also expand this to also include the CRP Grasslands Initiative.
- Increases funding for the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) to $450 million per year by 2023. This is a reversal of the significant cut that resulted from consolidating easement programs into ACEP in the 2014 Farm Bill, and provides additional funding to preserve working farms and ranches, and restore, protect, and enhance wetlands and grasslands through long-term easements. Within ACEP, the bill retains important conservation planning requirements and does not include an expansion of mineral development rights on easements, both important for the preservation of conservation benefits on agricultural land.
- Outside of the Conservation Title, it is also relevant to note that the Senate bill makes important reforms to strengthen the linkage between crop insurance and conservation by removing insurance-related barriers to conservation practice adoption, and by encouraging USDA to consider better insurance terms for farmers using risk-reducing conservation systems.
- Improves coordination between EQIP and CSP, in terms of applications, practices, and administrative processes, but fails to include the option (which is provided within both the GROW and SOIL Stewardship Acts) that would allow for graduation from EQIP to CSP when a participant meets the stewardship threshold for at least 2 priority resource concerns.
- Increases baseline funding for the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) and includes important reforms to the program including: allowing organizations to receive funding for outreach and technical assistance, increasing emphasis on conservation outcomes, and increasing the funding allocation of projects selected at the state level to ensure state and local concerns are addressed. The bill continues to take 7 percent of funds from covered programs for RCPP, it removes the protection that unused funds are returned to the covered programs.
- Closes a loophole within the “Sodsaver” provision that currently allows for no reduction in crop insurance subsidies during the first four years of planting an insured crop, as included in the American Prairies Conservation Act. However, the bill does not expand the 2014 Farm Bill’s Sodsaver provision to the entire county – the 2014 provision only applies to North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Minnesota, and Nebraska, and that limited protection is retained in the draft bill.
- Increases funding for the CRP Transition Incentives Program (CRP TIP) to $50 million for the next five years, which we strongly support, but does not include much needed modifications to eligibility and outreach assistance.
- Cuts funding to CSP and EQIP, the two primary working lands conservation programs. These programs deliver critical voluntary conservation assistance across the country and continue to be oversubscribed. The bill cuts $1.5 billion from EQIP over 10 years, which is more than an 8 percent cut to funding levels under the 2014 Farm Bill. It cuts $1 billion from CSP by reducing the annual acreage enrollment from 10 million to 8.8 million acres per year. This cut amounts to more than 5.5 percent of total baseline funding, and comes on top of an even larger cut to the program in the 2014 Farm Bill. Together, these cuts represent a diminishing commitment to working lands conservation.
- Fails to increase the set-asides within EQIP and CSP for beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers from 5 to 15 percent, which are included within the GROW Act and the SOIL Stewardship Act. Set-asides for beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers within these programs have not increased since they were established in the 2008 Farm Bill, despite the fact that participation and demand from these groups has significantly increased
- Fails to provide the authority and funding for USDA to measure, evaluate, and report on conservation outcomes associated with conservation programs, missing an important opportunity for program accountability and improvement.
- Fails to modify the EQIP Organic Initiative to eliminate the lower payment limit that currently exists. The bill also does not provide allocation of funds within EQIP for certified organic participants and those transitioning to organic production.
Following markup, we will update this post to reflect any further modifications to the bill through amendments in Committee.
Conservation, Energy & Environment, Farm Bill, Organic