NSAC's Blog

Down to the Wire for Farm Bill Extension

September 25, 2018

Without a resolution on a new farm bill or a farm bill extension USDA will loose authorization to fund conservation programs

Without a resolution on a new farm bill or a farm bill extension, USDA will lose legal authorization to fund conservation programs, and a host of other “tiny but mighty” programs that support a more sustainable food system will screech to a halt. 

Just three legislative days remain for Congress to find a way to miraculously complete the 2018 Farm Bill or, barring that, to pass a temporary extension of the 2014 Farm Bill. If lawmakers opt to do neither of these things, they will kick off a series of program implementation delays that will harm farmers, communities, and eaters.

In this post we highlight the real world impacts of life with neither a final 2018 Farm Bill nor a temporary extension of the 2014 Farm Bill. For additional details on the process, see our earlier post on this issue.

Just over $1 billion in unobligated conservation and specialty crop funding will be frozen starting October 1. Core farm bill conservation programs – the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP), and the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) – are only authorized to operate for fiscal years 2014 through 2018, which means that though these programs have over $1 billion in funding for fiscal year 2019, USDA does not have the legal authority to use it absent a short-term farm bill extension

This will directly impact farmers and ranchers at the worst possible time. In real terms, it would mean that, for the duration of the farm bill expiration, there would be:

  • No new sign-ups for CSP, the nation’s largest and only comprehensive conservation program. This means farmers and ranchers will be unable to sign up for advanced activities including diversified crop rotations and suites of soil health and water quality conservation practices, bundled together for higher impact. Additionally, NRCS will be unable to enroll the farmers whose renewals were approved and who have already signed up for a second contract when their first expires this year.
  • No new enrollments for CRP, including the Continuous CRP enrollment option (CCRP). Even though acres are available to be enrolled under the overall CRP acreage cap, farmers and landowners will be unable to sign up new partial field enrollments, including critical practices to protect water quality, soil health, and wildlife habitat – such as filter strips, riparian buffers, pollinator habitat, contour grass strips, and organic field borders.
  • No new wetland or agricultural land easements under ACEP. Limited funding carried over from previous years will go to service prior year agreements, but NRCS will be unable to move forward with any new agreements to protect farmland, grasslands, and wetlands.
  • No new partnership agreements under RCPP to target natural resource concerns in key regions across the country. Without a new round of RCPP sign-ups, NRCS will be unable to work with partners and producers to install and maintain conservation activities in key watersheds, protect grasslands and habitat, and integrate critical peer-to-peer support networks.

Producers count on planning for NRCS program sign-ups in the fall and early winter during what is for many the ‘slower’ part of the growing season. With no extension and no farm bill for now, but with a new farm bill or a farm bill extension by year’s end, NRCS could be stuck holding program sign-ups later into 2019, making it harder for growers to plan and for agencies to get them through all the steps necessary for enrollment.

There’s a lot of behind the scenes work that goes into opening signup periods for these key conservation programs. Comparing this situation with the timeline of what we would otherwise expect to see from USDA on conservation program implementation, this delay, even if an agreement is reached by the end of the calendar year, will put USDA conservation program delivery months behind what we would otherwise be seeing – making farmers’ jobs planning for the next growing season even harder.

Additionally, we continue to hear that NRCS field staff capacity at the local level is spread extremely thin. Not only will farm bill expiration put a hold on authority to offer new financial assistance, but it also limits the agency’s ability to provide technical assistance – forcing them to rely on leftover funding and funding through the appropriations process to provide much needed technical assistance.

There is a lot at stake when it comes to the conservation title. NSAC continues to urge Congress to ensure that farmers and ranchers can access the conservation support they need in the short term, and in the long term adopt a final bill that protects the full suite of conservation programs available to producers, as well as important reforms to increase access and conservation impact. More on our conservation priorities available here

Conservation programs aren’t the only services impacted after October 1. There would also be trade and specialty crop programs that, like conservation, have funding available for the new fiscal year but for which USDA would lack the authority to use the funding. The same holds true for the Seniors Farmers Market Nutrition Program that brings fresh produce to senior citizens.

In addition, over the past month we’ve been featuring a What’s at Stake series of posts highlighting 10 “tiny but mighty” farm bill programs supporting value-added agriculture, organic agriculture, beginning farmers, farmers of color, and local and regional food systems. These 10 programs, which together cost only $140 million per year – less than half of one percent of the total farm bill’s annual cost – will no longer be able to fund new applications and proposals after September 30 if Congress does not provide new funding via a new farm bill or an extension that specifically provides funding for them.

What does this mean for communities?

  • No grants will be awarded to help connect farmers and eaters – for example, by helping a food hub partner with farmers to build its supply chain, or by improving healthy food access through nutrition incentives for low-income families.
  • No grants will be awarded to support beginning and underserved farmers in the field – for example, by underwriting new farmer training or one-on-one technical assistance for farmers of color. 
  • No investments will be made to help create rural jobs – for example, by providing value-added farm businesses with financial planning and working capital or to directly assist rural small businesses with loans.
  • No funding will be available to encourage organic production – for example, by partially reimbursing certification expenses or investing in cutting-edge research with environmental and economic benefits at public universities.

Organizations with active grants already awarded by USDA will be able to continue their work – but with no new grant application rounds forthcoming, farmers and organizations won’t be able to apply for additional funding, which could cause disruptions in important work happening in communities nationwide.

It is our sincere hope that, barring a last minute miracle to wrap up a new farm bill now, that, before leaving town until after Election Day in November, Congress will do the right thing and pass a simple, short-term farm bill extension. Next, we hope they double down on efforts to pass a new farm bill, based largely on the bipartisan Senate-passed bill, that includes not cuts to conservation programs, no eliminations of conservation programs, a continuation and enhancement of farm program reforms, and robust funding for the tiny but mighty programs.

Categories: Conservation, Energy & Environment, Farm Bill, General Interest

Comments are closed.