Path to the 2012 Farm Bill: Senate Markup – Conservation Stewardship Program
April 30th, 2012
Note to Readers — This is the second in a series of posts on the 2012 Farm Bill reported out of the Senate Agriculture Committee on April 26.
Step Forward, Two Steps Backward for Conservation Stewardship Program
First the good news: the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) remains part of the revised conservation title for the 2012 Farm Bill approved by the Senate Agriculture Committee on April 26. The program emerges from Senate Committee markup continuing as an ongoing, permanent program with substantial funding on a par with the other large working lands program, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program.
The CSP provides comprehensive conservation assistance to farmers and ranchers to resolve particular priority resource concerns in a given location and address the full range of conservation issues, including soil quality, soil erosion, water quality and quantity, wildlife and biodiversity, air quality, and energy conservation. It offers farmers the opportunity to augment the foundation of their good current conservation efforts by earning payments for actively managing and maintaining them, expanding and improving them, and adding new conservation activities—even while they work their lands for production. CSP is for working farms and ranches, built on the belief that we must enhance natural resource and environmental protection at the same time we produce profitable food, fiber and energy.
Unlike EQIP, which provides “once and done” cost share assistance for implementing new conservation activities, primarily for structures and equipment, CSP provides support for ongoing advanced conservation management of farming operations on a long-term, continual improvement basis.
NSAC has a very extensive platform for improvements in the conservation title of the 2012 Farm Bill, but none more important than retaining and improving CSP.
In light of that priority status, we are unhappy to report that the good news from last week comes with two major setbacks, one expected, one less so.
As has been clear since a draft farm bill was put together by the chairs and ranking members of the House and Senate Agriculture Committee last year for the ill-fated congressional super committee, the conservation title has been slated to be cut by 10 percent, or about $6.4 billion over the next decade, in the 2012 Farm Bill. As part of that overall slashing of the conservation budget, the Conservation Stewardship Program has also been on deck for a 10 percent or $2 billion cut, wiping out the $1 billion increase it received in the 2008 Farm Bill with another $1 billion cut added on top of that.
Rather than enrolling 12.769 million acres a year, as was the case under the 2008 Farm Bill, if the new conservation title becomes law, the annual amount will decrease to 10.34 million acres a year. The national average payment rate per acre, including both financial and technical assistance and administrative costs will remain at $18 an acre. (That is an average rate; the rate for individual farms can vary widely, depending on land use and conservation benefits).
The NSAC farm bill platform called for a decrease in the number of acres enrolled each year but an increase in the average per acre payment rate, with no change in net funding for the program. That recommendation was based on a program analysis that suggested farmers would tend to choose conservation activities with higher conservation and environmental impact if payments were not such a small percentage of their costs as is currently the case.
While the large 10 percent cut had long been anticipated, the second big step backward for the CSP was more unexpected. When the draft farm bill presented to the Senate Agriculture Committee by Chair Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and Ranking Member Pat Roberts (R-KS) on April 20, it became clear there were serious policy setbacks for the program as well.
In the place of a comprehensive conservation program that both targeted conservation priorities by watershed and encouraged farmers to meet or exceed environmental thresholds for these priorities while also taking steps to improve other resource concerns such as soil quality and energy conservation, the proposal laid before the Committee scaled back the program to one that would focus only on a small handful of priority concerns and limit supported conservation activities to a narrow subset. Thankfully, this was corrected in the revised bill presented to the Committee on April 25 based on amendments pursued by Sen. Harkin (D-IA) and accepted by Chairwoman Stabenow and Ranking Member Roberts. This is an incredibly important revision and is now part of the bill reported out of Committee.
Another critical improvement made in the bill last week is on the issue of contract renewals. Under the draft bill presented on April 20, CSP contract renewals were based in part on the farmer agreeing to address two additional priority resource concerns. This would not be possible for farmers who already are addressing all priority resource concerns at levels exceeding the good stewardship threshold levels. Additional language pursued by Sen. Harkin and accepted by the Chair and Ranking Member clarifies that the test is whether a farmer has met or exceeded or will meet or exceed those levels.
On other issues, though, there are still major setbacks in the bill as reported:
- Rather than ranking CSP applications solely by their projected environmental benefits based on the totality of the conservation activity on the farm, the new Senate farm bill proposal maintains a more complicated ranking system that has had the effect of NRCS providing greater points to those who enter the program with less conservation on the ground and fewer points to those with the highest level of conservation, keeping the best stewards out of the program.
- Rather than clarifying how the 2008 Farm Bill encouraged farmers to undertake comprehensive conservation planning, the new bill moved in the opposite direction, narrowing the scope of conservation planning.
- Rather than clarifying the law to provide for CSP payments for farmers with the strongest commitment to highly diversified resource-conserving crop rotations, the new proposal continues to single out those who will adopt diversification strategies in the future.
- Rather than add language to allow landowners to make a smooth transition from a Conservation Reserve Program contract to a CSP contract, the new bill would keep the current one year lag, but then give former CRP contract holders additional ranking points, providing them with an unfair advantage over all other producers.
- Rather than making the program work more fairly for New England, Appalachia and other areas with a predominance of small acreage farms, the new bill continues to base payments on size of farm, with no allowance for a minimum contract rate.
- Rather than clarifying the 2008 Farm Bill provision encouraging farmers to voluntarily undertake on-farm conservation research, the new proposal eliminated it as an option altogether.
- Rather than improve the Conservation Measurement Tool – the engine that drives CSP enrollment – and increase its transparency, the new bill eliminates all references to environmental benefit measurement tools, leaving the future direction of the program and its basic operating system a bit of an in-limbo mystery.
- Rather than adding organic farmers to a USDA coordination provision, the new bill continues to direct special interagency coordination with respect to transitioning farmers only.
- Rather than increasing the successful beginning farmer set-aside from five percent to ten percent (which would still be less than half the beginning farmer fair share, the bill maintains the status quo.
Other changes to CSP include a switch from each watershed selecting between three and five priority resource concerns to each watershed choosing at least five. It is unclear from the bill language whether this is intended to apply to the eight major resource concerns or to a much longer list of more specific resource concerns. We believe this provision must be clarified as the farm bill proceeds.
The new bill eliminates the existing 10 percent set-aside for forested land. The bill also eliminates the current prohibition against enrolling the same land in CSP and what is today the Grassland Reserve Program and will become the Agricultural Land Easement program in the new bill.
NSAC will continue to work for CSP improvements as the farm bill process moves forward.