Just over a year ago, President Joe Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) into law. The culmination of years of work, the IRA invested nearly $20 billion in climate-friendly agriculture practices. As an organization that represents small and midsized-farmers across the nation, it is difficult to overstate the transformative potential of this funding to support all farmers in building vibrant and productive farms that can contribute to a climate-resilient future.
A year later, however, as Congress stares down the 2023 Farm Bill reauthorization, the future of this historic climate-focused funding is uncertain. While the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has been rolling out IRA’s fiscal year (FY) 2023 funding to farmers and ranchers across the country, some in Congress have begun to consider using the upcoming farm bill reauthorization as an opportunity to redirect these resources away from climate and conservation programs. This shortsighted approach would set farmers and ranchers up for failure, and redirecting IRA funds outside of climate-focused activities within conservation programs is a non-starter for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC). Alongside key partners, NSAC has in recent months led the call for Congress to protect the historic climate-focused funding in the 2023 Farm Bill.
As Congress nears a return from August recess and inches toward Farm Bill reauthorization, here are the 5 key things to know about the IRA’s $20 billion investment in climate-friendly agriculture:
- A Generational Investment for All Farmers. The IRA’s investment of $20 billion falls within traditional working lands conservation programs, or programs that are designed to support producers making changes to their operations that improve conservation outcomes on their farms. The IRA funds four key conservation programs: the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP), and the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP). For each program, the IRA both provides additional money for Fiscal Years (FY) 2023-2026 and attaches climate-focused “guardrails” to that new money. Unlike many other USDA programs tailored to specific commodities, conservation programs are available to all farmers no matter what they produce.
- Builds on the Proven Success of Federal Conservation Programs. Federal conservation programs have a long track record of addressing on-farm stewardship and are exceedingly familiar to farmers and ranchers. This makes these programs effective at advancing and scaling up climate beneficial farming practices. These programs support farmers and ranchers who implement a wide array of practices from increasing crop and livestock diversity, managing nutrients, and producing on-farm renewable energy. For example, comprehensive farm management – as supported and promoted by the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) – helps farmers to adopt and integrate advanced conservation methods into their farm systems. Taking a holistic approach to land management can sequester carbon, while also improving air and water quality, water infiltration, and enhanced biodiversity – all crucial to building resilience to a changing climate and to other disruptions.
- Conservation Programs are Incredibly Popular. Federal conservation programs are among the most popular USDA programs. Based on data from 2020 and 2022, farmer applicants to CSP and EQIP have far outnumbered available funding, leading to hundreds of thousands of farmers being turned away from these programs. For example, in 2022 alone, over 110,000 farmers were turned away from CSP and EQIP combined – over 73% of program applicants. When farmers are turned away from these programs, we miss opportunities to protect vital natural resources like water and soil, address the climate crisis, and support farmer productivity. The IRA agriculture funding was specifically intended to address this backlog by providing an infusion of investment into these oversubscribed programs, simultaneously meeting farmer demand while helping address the climate crisis.
- Overwhelming Stakeholder Support. In the year since the IRA was signed into law, the support for the agriculture funding has been widespread. In February 2023, 644 organizations, businesses, and farmers sent a letter asking Congress to “protect the historic $20 billion investment in climate-smart agriculture and conservation technical assistance and to ensure that this funding stays in climate-smart agriculture and Farm Bill conservation programs”. In March, more than 500 hundred farmers and farmer-advocates descended on Washington, DC at the Rally for Resilience to call on Congress to deliver a Farm Bill that invests in farmer-led climate solutions, racial justice, and communities not corporations. More recently, over 1,000 farmers signed a letter in support of the Agriculture Resilience Act, which in part calls for increased climate investments in federal conservation programs.
- Historic Investment leads to Significant Impact. It’s important to remember that the IRA’s investment is in addition to the normal, annual funding these conservation programs receive. Consequently, NRCS is in a wonderful position to deliver these funds to farmers quickly. Of the 137 conservation activities currently eligible for IRA funding, nearly all are tried and true conservation practices that NRCS has been helping farmers install on the landscape for years through each conservation program. Many of these practices have non-climate benefits, like supporting wildlife species and reducing agriculture’s impact on water quality. At the moment, all available evidence indicates that NRCS is getting this funding into the field. In May 2023, even with the additional IRA funding, NRCS was on pace with its normal spend-rate for that point in the year. Additionally, as NSAC noted earlier this year, when the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released its spring baseline projection, “of the $17 billion in IRA budget authority (the amount Congress has authorized NRCS to spend), CBO’s May baseline projects that NRCS will disburse roughly $15.308 billion – nearly 90% – from FY2023-31. This projection is virtually unchanged from the February 2023 baseline, and consequently indicates CBO’s expectation that NRCS will be able to effectively spend nearly 90% of its IRA budget authority – which is good news for conservation stakeholders, and those who want to build a more climate-resilient food and farm system. Of the remaining 10%, just under half is currently allocated to the RCPP program.”
In the months ahead, the House and Senate Agriculture Committees are expected to unveil their respective farm bill drafts. As they do so, NSAC and countless others will be closely watching the fate of the IRA’s historic funding.