NSAC's Blog

A Conservation Blueprint for the Next Farm Bill

March 21, 2018

Rye cover crops in Harford County Maryland. Cover crops are among the conservation practices supported by CSP. Photo credit: Edwin Remsberg, USDA.

Rye cover crops in Harford County Maryland. Cover crops are among the conservation practices supported by CSP. Photo credit: Edwin Remsberg, USDA.

When it comes to federal support for conservation activities, family farmers have a lot at stake in the 2018 Farm Bill. Conservation programs make up one of the largest slices of the farm bill pie (third to nutrition programs and the federal crop insurance program), and support a wide range of farm, ranch, and forest operations around the country.

At the center of this year’s farm bill debate on conservation are our three largest federal programs: the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), and the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). These conservation programs, administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), provide farmers and ranchers with the tools they need to build healthy soil, improve shared water resources, improve wildlife habitat, and increase the resilience and productivity of their operations.

In recognition of the enormous opportunity the next farm bill presents to further invest in and advance agricultural conservation programs, members of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees have introduced two key pieces of legislation: the Give our Resources the Opportunity to Work (GROW) Act in the Senate (S. 2557), and the Strengthening Our Investment in Land Stewardship (SOIL Stewardship) Act in the House (H.R. 5188). Senators Joni Ernst (R-IA), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Chuck Grassley (R-IA), and Bob Casey (D-PA) introduced the GROW Act and Congressman Tim Walz (D-MN) introduced the SOIL Stewardship Act.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) has endorsed both S. 2557 and H.R. 5188, and urges Congress to include their provisions in the Conservation Title of the next farm bill.

Common Objectives and Provisions 

The GROW Act and SOIL Stewardship Act are not what’s known as “companion bills,” however, there is significant overlap between the two. One of the key differences is that the GROW Act includes programmatic changes to CSP, EQIP, and CRP, whereas the SOIL Stewardship Act only addresses CSP and EQIP. All of the proposals for CSP and EQIP within the GROW Act are also included within the SOIL Stewardship Act; however, the SOIL Stewardship Act does contain additional CSP and EQIP reforms that are not included in the GROW Act.

Both bills strive to achieve the same overarching objectives: to improve soil health, protect and enhance water quality, and ensure that all farmers and ranchers have equitable access to land and much-needed conservation assistance.

The following sections include a breakdown of the common provisions through which the GROW and SOIL Acts achieve the aforementioned objectives, as well as an explanation of the provisions unique to each bill. 

Soil Health

Both the SOIL Stewardship Act and the GROW Act make programmatic reforms to conservation programs to provide farmers and ranchers the tools they need to take on conservation activities that protect and enhance the health of their soil. The bills will help farmers to achieve their soil health goals by supporting the development and/or maintenance of conservation activities including but not limited to: diversified crop rotations, high level rotational grazing management, and cover crop adoption. The sponsors of these bills know that healthy soil creates benefits on and off the farm that not only help farmers to stay profitable and sustainable, but also keep our shared natural resources healthy. For example, without healthy soils, cropland, grazing lands, and forests will be far less productive. Healthy soils also protect the environment by filtering potential pollutants, cycling nutrients, and providing critical support and stability for plant roots.

Common provisions in both bills that will help build healthy soils include:

  • Provide CSP bonus payments for cover crop adoption
  • Add a new supplemental payment in CSP for managed intensive rotational grazing to support high level livestock management activities
  • Authorize a minimum payment rate for both supplemental payments (managed intensive rotational grazing and resource conserving crop rotations)
  • Direct USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to establish a graduation process from EQIP to CSP, ensuring that participants can seamlessly take their soil health management to the next level

Water Quality

Farmers and ranchers not only rely on a steady supply of water to grow their crops and raise their animals; they also know that keeping our shared water systems clean and healthy is critical for their families and their neighbors’ families. The SOIL Stewardship Act and GROW Act will provide farmers and ranchers with the training, tools, and support they need to protect both the waters on and around their operations, as well as source drinking water.

As mentioned above, one key way both bills can help producers to protect our drinking water supply is by helping them to build soil health, which in turn limits erosion and keeps sediment, nutrients, and other pollutants out of nearby waters. In addition to the soil health provisions, both bills set aside nearly 30 percent of total EQIP funding for conservation practices that protect source drinking water sources.

The GROW Act further invests in water quality protections by establishing a new CLEAR (Clean Lakes, Estuaries, and Rivers) initiative within the continuous CRP enrollment option. This provision will direct USDA to enroll at least 4 million new acres of conservation buffers (strips or other areas with trees or grass that help control pollutants, erosion, or other environmental concerns).

Access to Conservation Assistance  

Without improving access, even the best changes to particular conservation program provisions will have minimal effect. Increasing access starts with protecting funding for each program, and both the GROW Act and the SOIL Stewardship Act help retain existing funding and acreage levels for the two largest working lands programs – CSP at 10 million new acres each year, and EQIP at $1.75 billion in funding each year.

In order to break down barriers and help more farmers and ranchers access financial and technical assistance through USDA, the GROW and SOIL Stewardship Acts also include programmatic reforms to:

  • Establish a clear coordination process through which participants can move from EQIP to CSP once eligibility qualifications have been met
  • Support beginning and socially disadvantaged farmer participation in working lands programs by increasing the set-aside from 5 to 15 percent within both EQIP and CSP
  • Simplify the EQIP Advance Payment Option to ensure automatic enrollment for both beginners and socially disadvantaged farmers
  • Authorize a payment for comprehensive conservation planning with CSP to increase access to conservation support for participants

Prioritizing the Most Sensitive Acres

Conservation doesn’t just mean keeping working lands sustainable, it can also mean removing the most sensitive acres from production temporarily or permanently. This is where CRP comes in. CRP’s mission is to conserve and improve soil, protect water quality, and provide wildlife habitat by establishing long-term cover on highly erodible land or land in need of conservation buffers that has previously been in row crop production.

Of particular significance to these goals, the Continuous CRP enrollment option provides support for farmers to install targeted, partial field conservation practices on the most environmentally sensitive land. The GROW Act further invests in Continuous CRP through an emphasis on conservation buffers that protect water quality within the CLEAR Initiative.

The GROW Act also makes programmatic reforms to CRP to ensure that the most sensitive acres are the ones being taken out of production and enrolled in the program. This provisions will both protect the acres most likely to erode, as well as help to keep more productive land available to farmers (particularly beginning farmers). The GROW Act will target CRP support where it is most needed and keep productive land accessible by:

  • Prohibiting prime farmland and Class I, II, and III land from CRP enrollment unless it is highly erodible and eroding at unsustainable levels, or unless it is a continuous CRP enrollment of high impact partial field enrollments
  • Prohibiting the enrollment of entire farms
  • Limiting the rental rates within General CRP to $240 per acre
  • Increasing the acreage cap for the CRP Grasslands Initiative to 3 million acres, allowing for sustainable grazing on additional acres than previously allowed
  • Reinvesting savings in a new CLEAR (Clean Lakes, Estuaries, and Rivers) option within continuous CRP that includes at least 4 million acres of new conservation buffers

There is ongoing debate about where the CRP acreage cap (which is currently at 24 million acres) will be set in the next farm bill. While the GROW Act maintains CRP at 24 million acres, NSAC is supportive of an increase to the CRP acreage cap, provided that it does not come at the expense of funding available for working lands programs, limit the quality or quantity of enrollments available through the Continuous CRP enrollment option, or limit access to land for new farmers.

Incentivizing High-Level Activities

Federal programs like CSP and EQIP support a wide variety of conservation activities, but some (e.g., resource conserving crop rotations and management intensive rotational grazing) are significantly more impactful (and often also more intensive to implement) than others – these activities are considered “high-level” conservation activities.

The SOIL Stewardship Act includes provisions that will enable CSP and EQIP to properly incentivize producers to take on high-level conservation activities by:

  • Increasing the average payment rate per acre within CSP from $18 to $23 per acre.
    • This increase will ensure that NRCS has sufficient authority to set payment rates that reflect farmers’ investments and the true benefits of high-level conservation activities.
  • Distinguishing between management and development conservation practices within EQIP.
    • This change would direct EQIP to provide higher cost share rates for practices that involve active conservation management and lower rates for structural practices. Under this structure, EQIP will more appropriately reward producers who are making the greatest improvements to the way they actively manage their land.

The Path Forward for Farm Bill Conservation Programs

NSAC applauds Senator Ernst, Senator Brown, Senator Grassley, Senator Casey, and Representative Walz for their leadership in putting forward innovative conservation proposals for the next farm bill. Now that these marker bills have been introduced, the lead sponsors will work with their colleagues in Congress to get “co-signers” to lend their support to the bills. We anticipate that the House will be the first chamber to act on the farm bill, though despite promises for an early bill, the timing is so far still uncertain.

What is certain, however, is that NSAC will continue to work both with Congress and with our members and allies across the country to raise the profile of these crucial agricultural conservation programs. Programs like CSP, EQIP, and CRP ensure that the future farmers of America can continue to pursue successful careers in agriculture, and they also help to ensure that all of us have access to good food and healthy natural resources.

To learn more about efforts NSAC supports on conservation in the next farm bill, click here. To read NSAC’s entire farm bill policy platform and find links to our 2018 Farm Bill series (published earlier this year), click here.

Categories: Beginning and Minority Farmers, Conservation, Energy & Environment, Farm Bill

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