June 11, 2015
On Thursday, June 11, the Conservation Subcommittee of the House Agriculture Committee held a hearing to examine the implementation of conservation programs by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). USDA is responsible for administering conservation programs authorized by the 2014 Farm Bill. These programs include the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP), and Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP).
The Subcommittee heard testimony from Jason Weller, Chief of USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), and Val Dolcini, Administrator of USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA). In addition to the USDA witnesses, the Committee also heard from Brent Van Dyke of the National Association of Conservation Districts, Buddy Allen, a rice producer representing the USA Rice Federation, Karen Martynick of the Lancaster Farmland Trust, and Jim Inglis of Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever.
In her opening statement, Subcommittee Ranking Member Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-NM) noted that her home state of New Mexico is one of the top ranking states for CSP enrollment. Between 2009 and 2014, producers in New Mexico enrolled 5.4 million acres in the program, making it second only to Nebraska in terms of number of acres enrolled. According to Rep. Lujan Grisham, the program, along with others like EQIP and RCPP, is critical to helping farmers and ranchers deal with drought.
Mr. Van Dyke, a life-long resident of New Mexico, also noted that “CSP has been invaluable in New Mexico, helping to keep ranchers on the land despite the extreme drought conditions.”
Congressman Collin Peterson, Ranking Member of the full Agriculture Committee, explained that producers have been having trouble re-enrolling in CSP after upon the expiration of their initial five-year contract. According the Rep. Peterson, NRCS is underpaying producers for managing and improving ongoing conservation activities relative to installing new conservation activities, leading many producers to forgo re-enrollment in the program.
NSAC has heard the same thing from many producers. NRCS consistently emphasizes the importance of new conservation activities in the ranking process and payment rules for CSP but fails to adequately support the ongoing conservation management activities farmers undertake each year. In addition to forcing the best stewards to accept lower payments, this structure is clearly discouraging some of the best conservationists from re-enrolling in the program at all. We strongly believe that CSP should reward the conservation benefits and environmental outcomes that result from the continual improvement of advanced conservation activities, regardless of when the activity was first adopted.
Regional Conservation Partnerships
Both Mr. Van Dyke and Mr. Allen pointed to the importance of CSP, EQIP, and RCPP, while Mr. Inglis and Ms. Martynick explained how CRP and ACEP are used to protect wildlife populations and farmland, respectively. Both producers pointed to the importance of a provision within RCPP that allows NRCS and project partners to adjust elements of the underlying programs if such adjustments increase environmental outcomes, better reflect unique local circumstances, and help achieve the purposes of an RCPP project.
“One thing that is nice about the flexibility built into RCPP is the ability to tailor programs such as EQIP and CSP…” said Mr. Allen. NSAC fought for this flexibility provision during the 2014 Farm Bill debate.
Conservation Reserve Early Outs
In response to a question from Representative Allen (R-GA), Administrator Dolcini indicated that 266,000 acres of CRP land have left the program under the 2014 Farm Bill provision allowing certain CRP contracts to terminate early. However, this appears to have been a misstatement, as USDA’s April 2015 CRP report indicates that only 90,000 acres left the program through this mechanism. This is considerably fewer acres than some of the proponents of the opt out provision may have imagined, but commodity prices are also considerably lower than when the provision got added to what became the 2014 Act.