Conservation Programs in the Farm Bill – A win-win-win for farmers, environmentalists, and … hunters?

 

When most people think of the Farm Bill, they think of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or crop insurance for farmers. While these two programs make up most of the funding for the Farm Bill, there are many other aspects to the bill, and one is for conservation. While the 2018 Farm Bill is currently in limbo, the House wants to cut programs by merging them and cut monies for a host of programs concerned with conservation. These programs are a win-win-win for farmers, conservationists, and hunters.

You may wonder hunters? I’ll answer that question after a general overview of three of the larger programs that will be impacted by the 2018 Farm Bill:

Conservation Reserve Program (CRP)

This is the most substantial aspect of the conservation program, and there are currently 23.7 million acres under the supervision of the Farm Service Agency (FSA) and support from the National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS). Farmers are paid on a per acre basis for 10 to 15 years based on how land is scored on an Environmental Benefit Index (EBI) and average rents for the area. The EBI looks at erosion, water quality, wildlife benefits, and enduring benefit factors. The program was also put into place to encourage farmers not to plant certain crops due to sagging commodity prices. Pat Westoff, director of the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute at the University of Missouri, spoke with Harvest Public Media.

“Certainly, there are people who would like to see the ability to roll more acres both for environmental purposes but also frankly as a supply-control measure,” he says. “If there’s less land being used for crop production, that will give at least a modest bump to commodity prices and therefore protect the income of other farmers.”

Bruce Knight writing for Agri-Pulse takes a different approach, “As we look at renewing contracts on expiring acres or raising the acreage cap, we need to be sure that the program focuses on environmentally sensitive acreage, and we don’t wind up with high-quality land under CRP contracts. At the birth of the CRP program, it was used to short the corn and wheat supplies – let’s not make that mistake again.” Knight would rather see it moved into other programs (which I will talk about below) and use CRP for nutrient runoff and specific habitat benefits rather than whole fields.

There are about 5.7 million acres that expired at the end of the funding for the Farm Bill in September. Most of that land that is expired or due to expire is currently in trees and grassland and we need to ensure that the CRP focuses on these environmentally sensitive lands. The World Wildlife Federation supports the program as it preserves grasslands from development and conversion, further supporting wildlife habitat, water conservation, and erosion control.

Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP)

The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) provides farmers and ranchers with a financial cost-share and technical assistance to implement conservation programs. These programs include improvements to irrigation, restoring pasture, and nutrient and pest management. Payments for conservation improvements cover costs incurred from the planning, materials, equipment and installation including labor and training. The USDA may pay up to 75 percent of these costs based on water quality and improvement, air quality improvement, wildlife habitat; including pollinator habitat and invasive species management.  However, socially disadvantaged, limited-resource, beginning and veteran farmer and ranchers are eligible for cost-share rates of up to 90 percent of project costs. Currently, 60 percent of the funds are set aside for livestock producers with five percent for beginning farmers and ranchers, and an additional 5 percent is set-aside for socially disadvantaged farmers – including minority and tribal producers.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NASC) notes that between 2009 – 2015 the NRCS funded over $6.4 billion in financial and technical assistance through EQIP cost-share contracts. Over 260,000 farmers and ranchers received contracts, covering more than 81 million acres. In the fiscal year 2015 alone, there were over 32,900 EQIP contracts covering nearly 9 million acres and obligating over $861 million in financial assistance.

Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP)

The CSP works like the EQIP program and is the largest in terms of land under conservation with over 70 million acres. Through the CSP, farmers and ranchers receive technical and financial assistance to maintain existing conservation programs and technical support as well. Farmers and ranchers can implement additional conservation activities on land currently in agriculture production. The CSP program targets are funding activities such as: assist farmers and ranchers improve soil, water, and air quality including conservation of water and energy; provide increased biodiversity and wildlife and pollinator habitat; sequester carbon and reduce greenhouse gases to mitigate climate change. Payments are determined by costs incurred for the design, materials, installation, labor and maintenance or training. Additional payments are made for crop rotations that include cover crops, and forages that help to sequester greenhouse gases. According to the NASC, “Payments are capped at $40,000 per year or $200,000 over the life of the 5-year contract. Nationwide, payments and technical assistance average $18 per acre. However, payment amounts vary greatly, from lower-cost rangeland improvement contracts to mid-range pasture contracts to higher-range cropland contracts.”

Under the House version of the Farm Bill, this program would be eliminated and merged into the EQIP program. Eliminating this program would be counter-intuitive as a report issued by NASC states that members the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), asserts that for every dollar spent on the program ~$3.95 is generated in the returned value. States primarily in the Upper Great Plains and the Midwest will see a net decrease in funding over ten years.

Win-Win-Win

By now you may be asking, how does this benefit hunters? In an article published in AgWeek this October, hunters were lamenting this year for the pheasant season in North Dakota. Part of the reason was the decline in acreage in the CRP program. In 2007, during the height of acreage in the program, “populations of pheasants, waterfowl, deer and other wildlife soared, and North Dakota hunters in 2007 shot 907,434 roosters, Game and Fish statistics show.” Since that time land enrolled in the program has declined, and that number dwindled to 309,400. Game and Fish has worked with farmers and Pheasants Forever to plant cover crops and other alternative practices on less profitable land to restore the population. Both versions from the House and Senate of the Farm Bill will increase CRP acreage, but the other conservation programs will also help restore habitat, not only for pheasants but other wildlife as well. This is a win for environmentalists to establish more property into conservation programs, and a win for farmers to get assistance for their less-profitable land, make their farms more sustainable and improved for future generations.

There are some people who think there will be some efforts to pass a Farm Bill during the lame-duck session at the end of the year. If so, contact your representative in the House and let them know you want to maintain these conservation programs and to pass the Senate version of the bill.

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