April 5, 2016
Congressional appropriators are this month in the process of drafting their fiscal year (FY) 2017 appropriations bills, bills which will determine the success or failure of programs by setting federal funding levels for the year. Several agricultural conservation programs, like the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), are under fire in the House and Senate as they put their annual funding bills together. In the hopes of preventing a re-opening of the 2014 Farm Bill to cut to these programs, over 140 farm and conservation groups from across the country have joined together on a letter urging appropriators to commit the full funding at the levels provided in the farm bill, as requested by the Administration’s FY 2017 budget proposal.
“Agricultural conservation programs are the first line of defense in preparing for extreme weather events and avoiding the need for environmental regulations,” the letter states. “Additional cuts to voluntary conservation programs would leave producers high and dry when trying to build soil resilience, create and maintain habitat for threatened, endangered, or economically important fish and wildlife, and prepare for and manage drought and flooding.”
The letter, sent on Monday, April 4, was signed by dozens of leading conservation and agricultural sustainability groups including the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), the American Seed Trade Association, National Farmers Union, National Wildlife Federation, The Nature Conservancy, American Farmland Trust, and the National Association of Clean Water Agencies.
In addition to opposing cuts to mandatory funding for conservation programs, the letter urges appropriators to meet the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) discretionary funding request for Conservation Technical Assistance, which USDA uses to provide landowners with the site-specific solutions needed to implement conservation practices on their lands.
Historically, appropriators have utilized a back-door budget gimmick called “Changes in Mandatory Program Spending (CHIMPS)” to cut farm bill direct spending (setting mandatory funding for farm bill programs is under the jurisdiction of the Agriculture Committees, not the Appropriations Committees). Last year, in the FY 2016 omnibus appropriations bill, appropriators used CHIMPS to cut the EQIP by $321 million (19 percent). In the previous year (FY 2015), appropriators cut EQIP by 16 percent and CSP by 30 percent using the same method.
Even without any additional CHIMPS, mandatory spending for farm bill conservation programs like EQIP, CSP, the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, and the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program will be cut by upwards of $260 million through automatic annual cuts known as sequestration.
These cuts have dramatic, direct impacts on farmers, ranchers, and foresters. Depleting funding for conservation programs means more water pollution, diminished wildlife habitat, and more expensive environmental mitigation needs for farmers in the future.
Budget cuts to agricultural conservation programs also mean extremely long waits for farmers looking to enhance or add sustainability practices to their operations. As a result of the cuts in FY 2015, for example, only 23 percent of eligible EQIP applicants and 28 percent of eligible CSP applicants were able to enroll nationwide. Last year, half of the states in the U.S. turned away 75 percent or more of eligible CSP and EQIP applicants.
Farmer and U.S. Army veteran Gregg DeBoer, who recently came to Washington and met with congressional appropriators as part of an NSAC farmer fly-in, is grateful for agricultural support programs like EQIP, but knows that more funding would mean expanded access for growers like himself.
“We are very lucky to have the staff and conservation resources that we have around here with the Extension office, Farm Service Agency, and Alabama Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS),” said DeBoer. “I would love to get a high tunnel, but there is not enough [EQIP] funding this year for the cost-share.”
DeBoer hopes his local NRCS agency will have more EQIP funding for high tunnels next year.
Concurrent with the delivery of the national letter, organizations from several key appropriators’ states delivered letters asking their appropriators to support funding for conservation programs.
For instance, 20 organizations from Alabama, including the Alabama Farmers Federation, Alabama Association of Conservation Districts, Alabama Sustainable Agriculture Network, and Alabama Women in Agriculture, signed on to the letter to House Agricultural Appropriations Chairman Robert Aderholt (R-AL).
As the Subcommittees develop FY 2017 appropriations bills, NSAC and partners will continue to fight to keep the farm bill intact, to reject cuts to conservation programs, and to adequately fund Conservation Technical Assistance.