Farmers depend on productive, sustainable land, clean water and air and healthy animals to make a living. To help create those conditions and protect ecosystems, they get help from conservation programs that make up about 6 percent of the $500 billion federal farm bill.
“(The farm bill) provides ranchers, farmers and forest landowners with the tools necessary to protect and conserve not only the land but also their way of life,” according to Larry Clemens with The Nature Conservancy.
Conservation programs can help stem the tide of farm nutrients and waste runoff into streams, which has puts drinking water, animal life and plant growth at risk, as well as created at dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico at the mouth of the Mississippi River where no living things grow.
The conservation programs can be competitive, though, and some disagree about how many acres should be included in certain programs. While the 2018 farm bill drafts haven’t yet been made public, these are three of the larger programs that might see some changes:
Conservation Reserve Program (CRP)
The largest program in the farm bill pays farmers to take environmentally sensitive land out of production — typically, that’s land that is highly erodible — for 10 or 15 years, allowing it to return to its native status.
The 2014 farm bill capped CRP land at 24 million acres (about the size of Indiana), and it’s nearly full, at a cost of $1.8 billion. That’s unusual, according to Pat Westoff, the director of the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute at the University of Missouri. And he suggests that due to continued low prices for corn and soybeans.
“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.”
CRP payments are calculated by looking at average land rental rates. When those numbers are competitive with what farmers can make growing crops, more of them may turn to CRP.
Ryan Britt, a fifth-generation farmer in Clifton, Missouri, owns a small plot of CRP land. He says while there are environmental benefits, he’s worried some farmers are taking advantage of the program.
“Certain counties within Missouri have a high enough cash-rent rate then it's actually competing with young producers trying to expand or trying to be able to provide for their family,” he says.
And that leaves fewer acres for beginning farmers to rent or buy, he says, which is tricky at a time that average age of U.S. farmers is growing upward.
Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP)
If farmers want to add cover crops for better soil health or install irrigation systems that help prevent groundwater contamination, they can apply for funding to cover those costs through EQIP.
Britt received EQIP money to install a more environmentally friendly grazing system for his cattle. His pasture is subdivided with fences and has a water system that allows him to rotate his cattle from one section of the pasture to the other.
“We don't allow animals to stay on the same ground all year round, so it gives the ground a chance to rest, build up the soil health and the plant diversity is much better,” Britt says. “But then it's also a profitability point for producers in that we're able to actually put more head (of cattle) per acre because the ground is more efficient. It's a win-win.”
Installing conservation systems through EQIP is important for Britt, because eventually he wants to turn his land over to his children — if they choose to continue farming.
The problem is funding through EQIP is very competitive. He wants to put in terraces to prevent soil erosion, but he’s running up against the program’s popularity.
“I’ve had an application for cost-share terraces federally for three years that has not been granted yet,” he says.
In 2016, EQIP was paying for more than 36,000 different projects.
Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP)
Similar to EQIP, CSP funds projects that add to the sustainability of farmland. It also rewards farmers who are already using methods like adding riparian buffers to reduce runoff or installing better drainage systems to protect water quality.
“The idea is that if you if you were to be able to get these sorts of contracts out there with a large share of the country, we could be pretty confident that at least some of the major resource issues are being dealt with on those operations,” Westoff says.
The current farm bill covers up to 10 million acres of land in CSP — about the size of Massachusetts and Connecticut combined.
The 2018 farm bill will likely include changes to the list of approved practices as more conservation techniques are developed, and the top three programs could see minor changes in acreage or funding.
“Typically, the debate has been how much should each program get,” Clemens says. “And, of course, as you could imagine certain constituents support the various programs within the conservation title more than others.”
Clemens says his group would like to see more emphasis on improving soil health in the conservation title.
But as government spending is tightened across agencies, farmers are asking lawmakers to, if nothing else, keep conservation program funding as it stands.
“What's most important for me as a producer is that I'm able to provide for my family and that I'm able to make sure that our land is as good or better when we're done as it was when we started,” Britt says. “And that nowhere in that process am I endangering anybody else."
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