Every five years, the discussion over the farm bill baseline determines the level of resources for not only traditional farm programs under Title 1, but also the conservation title. Depending on the fiscal outlook, those levels sometimes require Congress to maintain the same baseline or find “savings” by spending less over the 10-year baseline if the farm bill was implemented for 10 years.
Action this year on the climate and infrastructure bill represents the best opportunity in decades to meet farmer demand for conservation programs.
With the latest proposals’ price tag from the Biden Administration for the American Jobs Plan and American Family Plan in the trillions, with a T, some ag lobbyists see the current environment as critical to boosting farm bill spending on conservation that can also boost funding the actions those in agriculture can take or have taken on mitigating the climate.
Ferd Hoefner, an agricultural consultant on farm, food and environment policy, says it’s highly unlikely that in 2023 Congress will offer billions of extra dollars to fund conservation programs. “This is the opportunity we should be looking at as the agricultural community as if this was the farm bill because from a funding standpoint, I think it really is,” Hoefner says.
Although the American Jobs Plan offers a $1 billion placeholder for additional funds for agricultural conservation efforts, Hoefner says it does not come close to meeting the funding expectations by many in ag circles.
The conservation title of the 2018 Farm Bill spends $60 billion of the $867 billion of mandatory funding required for conservation programs over 10 years, equal to 7% of the bill’s total projected mandatory spending in that timeframe.
A letter was sent April 27 to both ag committees from more than 130 farm and conservation organizations in support for doubling farm bill conservation program funding as part of the upcoming action on the infrastructure, climate and jobs bill.
“That 10-year $50-plus billion investment, properly targeted, would do more to move U.S. agriculture to net zero emissions than any other proposal currently on the table. I hope ag committee leadership will start pushing hard in this direction and get agriculture a much bigger seat at the budget reconciliation table compared to what the White House has initially offered,” Hoefner says.
The letter explains farm bill conservation programs are routinely oversubscribed. “Demand for conservation on 13.8 million acres goes unmet because of inadequate funding every year. Additionally, our current programs meet only a fraction of the need for voluntary conservation on the landscape,” the groups say.
The three main programs that make up the conservation title cover working lands and land retirement. The two largest working lands programs are the Environmental Quality Incentive Program and the Conservation Stewardship Program, with a combined dedicated $25 billion over 10 years. Funding for CSP was shifted away from an acreage limitation to limits based on funding. EQIP was expanded and reauthorized with increased funding levels, explains American Farm Bureau Federation economists Shelby Myers and Michael Nepveux in a recent Market Intel analysis.
Despite efforts in the last farm bill to increase total acreage, the major land retirement program – the Conservation Reserve Program – has seen lower participation. Recently, USDA announced plans to reopen enrollment to add up to the 4 million acres currently allowed, but not enrolled, and adding climate-smart practice incentives in conjunction with the CRP rental rate.
Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack plans to utilize resources within USDA’s current authorization but says more resources will be needed to expand conservation activities. In announcing a vision for the President’s 30x30 plan to conserve 30% of the nation’s waters and land by 2030, he says the President’s budget calls for additional resources, but funding levels are in the hands of Congress.
If Congress does act, it is then incumbent on the agency to look for creative ways to leverage those resources as well as match those financial resources with personnel and technical resources such as at the Natural Resources Conservation Service to provide technical assistance to implement actions.
As the ag coalition notes, “Increasing baseline funding for the farm bill conservation programs and ramping up conservation technical assistance on the ground will enable landowners to mitigate the impacts of drought and flood, improve habitat, improve soil health and long-term food security, create new job opportunities for rural economies, and galvanize the agriculture sector to lead the charge in our fight against climate change.”