July 8, 2011
On Thursday, July 7, the House Agriculture Committee’s Subcommittee on Conservation, Energy, and Forestry held an audit hearing to examine USDA conservation programs.
This is part of a series of hearings to be held by the House Agriculture Committee leading up to the 2012 Farm Bill. According to the Committee’s press release on the hearing, “Each chairman of the six subcommittees will hold hearings to examine programs in their respective jurisdictions to determine spending trends and confirm how programs work together.”
Dave White, Chief of the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and Bruce Nelson, Administrator of the Farm Service Agency (FSA) testified at the hearing.
Despite the massive cuts to mandatory conservation programs included in the House’s FY 2012 agriculture appropriations bill, Democrats and Republicans on the Subcommittee demonstrated broad bipartisan support for these programs.
Representative Frank Lucas (R-OK), Chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, had this to say about the importance of the farm bill conservation programs:
In 2002, we increased conservation spending in the 2002 Farm Bill by $17 billion over ten years—an 80 percent expansion that created the greenest farm bill in history. This legislation increased our commitment to important programs like CRP and EQIP and helped multiply participation in conservation practices.
In the 2008 Farm Bill, we built upon the historic conservation title by $4 billion over 10 years. That conservation title included new regional and cooperative partnership programs as well as the reauthorization and increased funding of existing programs.
These programs have created new ways for producers and conservation organizations to achieve shared goals. Farmers and ranchers, with the assistance of these programs, have voluntarily worked to help reduce soil erosion, increase wetlands, improve water quality, and preserve farmland and wildlife habitat.
However, as we work towards the next bill, this Committee will be faced with a very different budget situation. Not only will the Agriculture Committee have to do our part within the overall deficit situation, but as all of us know, we literally have dozens of programs with no baselines, many under the umbrella of conservation.
Conservation is an important element of farm policy. Farmers and ranchers make their living off the land, and they are committed to preserving and protecting it for future generations.
Representative Glenn “GT” Thompson (R-PA), Chairman of the Subcommittee on Conservation, Energy, and Forestry, also spoke out in support of the conservation programs, noting that more money needs to be dedicated to providing conservation technical assistance to farmers and ranchers. Rep. Thompson suggested that the lack of technical assistance for producers limits the capacity of NRCS to implement conservation programs. The balance, Thompson argued, should be closer to a 50/50 split.
Ranking Member Tim Holden (D-PA) seconded Thompson’s message. “A consistent message we are hearing across the country is that more people are needed in the field to assist producers in making land management decisions and implementing conservation practices,” Holden said.
NSAC agrees that more money should be dedicated to providing technical assistance to producers. This is a chronic problem, and one that we hope to address in the upcoming farm bill.
Chairman Thompson held two rounds of questioning, during which Subcommittee members asked a variety of program-specific questions of Chief White and Administrator Nelson.
Rep. Collin Peterson (D-MN), Ranking Member of the House Agriculture Committee, noted that he had read in the news that the $210 million cut to the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) contained in the House’s FY 2012 agriculture appropriations bill would force USDA to break contracts signed in 2011. NRCS Chief White responded by saying that NRCS would not have to break contracts.
It remains unclear to us – given the clear requirements of the statute and the Administration’s final rule for the program – how NRCS would be able to avoid breaking or modifying existing contracts if the proposed cut becomes law. Since CSP payments are all made in the fiscal year following the year of enrollment, all CSP payments to be made in FY 2012 would be for previously signed contracts and for practices already carried out. Given that NRCS is nearly done signing FY 2011 contracts (to be paid out in FY 2012 and after), given that there is not anywhere near enough CSP technical assistance to rob to fill a $210 million hole, and given that the size of the cut is too big to just cut a full year’s enrollment class by giving them no payment for a whole year, a cut of $210 million would leave USDA with no choice but to cancel previously signed contracts, or even withhold payments for previously carried out conservation practices.
On a more positive note, Chief White announced at the hearing that, as of this week, more than 35 million acres are enrolled in the Conservation Stewardship Program. CSP is now the largest USDA conservation program nationwide. In response to a question from Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME), the Chief noted that, in square miles, CSP is now twice the size of the state of Maine. NRCS expects to enroll an additional 3 million acres before the FY 2011 enrollment is complete.
FSA Administrator Bruce Nelson also announced that, as of June 2011, 486 contracts on nearly 73,000 acres have been signed as part of the Conservation Reserve Program’s Transition Incentives Program (TIP). We had previously reported that as of November 30, 2010, FSA had signed 372 contracts on more than 52,000 acres.
Rep. Pingree made the following statement in support of USDA’s Organic Initiative:
In the 2008 Farm Bill, Congress recognized the importance of making working lands conservation programs accessible to a diversity of farmers and ranchers, including organic producers and conventional producers interested in transitioning to organic. The Environmental Quality Incentives Program includes a specific provision to ensure that the program can be accessed by organic and transitioning farmers, in recognition of the conservation benefits organic systems provide and the historical lack of participation by those producers in working lands conservation programs. I am supportive of your implementation of this provision through the Organic Initiative.
Pingree continued by asking, “While the Organic Initiative has been popular, there have also been barriers to implementation. One of these barriers includes the unfamiliarity of NRCS with organic systems. Can you please discuss training or education efforts to overcome this barrier?”
Chief White responded by noting that NRCS is working to better integrate organic production systems into NRCS operations. He specifically mentioned a Conservation Innovation Grant (CIG) project that is being led by ten NSAC member organizations to integrate sustainable and organic agriculture into NRCS programs. We are currently in the first year of this multi-year project and look forward to continued collaboration with NRCS.
There are additional farm bill hearings already scheduled on both the House and Senate side. We will continue to monitor and summarize these proceedings as we move toward the 2012 Farm Bill.