Privately-owned crop, pasture, and rangeland account for nearly half of the landmass in the U.S. Given the size of that land that is in agriculture, land that is a part of thousands of watersheds throughout the country, farmers and ranchers can have an enormous impact on our natural environment, for better or for worse. Farm policies that reward overproduction of vast monocultures with very limited conservation requirements have negatively impacted our soil, streams, lakes, and air. However, with a shift in the conditions and rewards, more agricultural producers can help protect and rebuild soil, provide clean water and habitat for native wildlife, sequester carbon, and supply other conservation and environmental benefits. Agriculture can work with and for the environment. It’s all a matter of policy choices.
Since the passage of the 1985 Farm Bill, conservation requirements and assistance programs have played an ever-increasing role in each succeeding farm bill. From conservation compliance requirements and the Conservation Reserve Program in 1985, to the Wetlands Reserve Program, Water Quality Incentives Program, and Integrated Farm Management Program in 1990, to the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program, and Farmland Protection Program in 1996, and Conservation Security Program in 2002, there now exists a very substantial set of program authorities and mandatory funding allocations for the conservation title of the farm bill.
The 2008 Farm Bill continues along this trajectory by offering new conservation initiatives and nearly $4 billion in increased funding for conservation programs that will benefit both farmers and the environment over the next five years. In recognition of the fact that an increasing number of landowners participating in the Conservation Reserve Program are not re-enrolling in the program as their 10-year contracts come up for renewal, Congress reduced the acreage cap for the land retirement program to 32 million acres. The money saved as a result of moving to the more realistic acreage cap was shifted over to expand other conservation programs.
Expanded funding and programmatic changes are made to both of the country’s primary working-land conservation programs: the Conservation Stewardship Program and Environmental Quality Incentives Program. By the end of this farm bill cycle in 2012, the working lands conservation programs will be receiving well over 50 percent of total farm bill conservation funding, a dramatic shift from the pre-2002 Farm Bill era when land retirement represented nearly 90 percent of total funding. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) again took the lead on the CSP, fighting successfully to streamline the program, expand funding, and re-enforce its high environmental standards, while bringing greater coordination between CSP and EQIP.
The new farm bill also reserves a very significant portion of each year’s funding for CSP, EQIP, and the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program for innovative projects at the state and local level through the Cooperative Conservation Partnership Initiative, another NSAC priority.
As Congress set out to reauthorize the farm bill, future funding for the Wetlands Reserve Program and the Grasslands Reserve Program was completely expired. The new farm bill does renew funding for those two programs, though unfortunately the WRP funding level was somewhat less than a full renewal at the previous level.
The largest conservation program in dollar terms remains the land retirement Conservation Reserve Program. Even though the total, cumulative CRP acreage cap was scaled back some in the new Farm Bill, there will still be plenty of room for farmers and landowners to continue to enroll conservation buffers in the Continuous Conservation Reserve Program or the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program.