More or Less Conservation? Farm Bill Debate Will Decide

Voluntary agriculture conservation programs have contributed measurably and importantly to reducing soil erosion, protecting water quality and supplies, preserving wildlife habitat, and protecting biological diversity. They have helped make American agriculture more sustainable. But much more needs to be done, and more farmers need to participate. The Senate Farm Bill debate will help decide if that will happen.

In a post earlier this week, we reported on some of the conservation provisions in the Agriculture Reform, Food, and Jobs Act of 2012 (S. 3240), which is now pending before the Senate. Since then, a number of strengthening and weakening amendments have been proposed among the 280-plus amendments.

SA 2219 by Senators Benjamin Cardin (D-MD), Joseph Lieberman (I-CT), and Al Franken (D-MN) would require that farmers who voluntarily choose to receive public crop insurance subsidies should also comply with the best conservation management practices.

In a previous SBFF post, we observed and asked: Helping agricultural producers manage the risks of uncertain and volatile commodity markets, prices for inputs, weather, and other hazards is key to sustaining the nation’s capacity to produce ample food, feed, fiber, and biofuels. Conserving the nation’s soil, water, biological diversity, and wildlife habitats and restoring the nation’s water quality and fisheries are also urgent national priorities. Yet conservation success lags far behind the success of agricultural production. Can the next Farm Bill encourage better balance - more production and much more conservation?

Under the pending bill, farmers would not have to be involved in conservation programs to receive public crop insurance subsidies. This amendment would help encourage better balance and sustainability. EESI joined a broad-based coalition in a letter supporting this amendment.

Other senators, however, have offered amendments which would end the nation’s commitment to conservation. These include SA 2314 by Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) which would repeal the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and SA 2353 by Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) which would repeal both the CSP and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP).

From the USDA web site:

  • CRP is a voluntary program for agricultural landowners. Through CRP, farmers can receive annual rental payments and cost-share assistance to establish long-term, resource conserving covers on eligible farmland. Under current law, up to 32 million acres may be enrolled. The pending bill would reduce this to 25 million cares by 2017.
  • CSP is a voluntary conservation program that encourages producers to address resource concerns in a comprehensive manner by undertaking additional conservation activities, and improving, maintaining, and managing existing conservation activities. Participants receive an annual land use payment for operation-level environmental benefits they produce. Under CSP, participants are paid for conservation performance: the higher the operational performance, the higher their payment.
  • EQIP is a voluntary program that provides financial and technical assistance to agricultural producers through contracts up to a maximum term of ten years in length. These contracts provide financial assistance to help plan and implement conservation practices that address natural resource concerns and for opportunities to improve soil, water, plant, animal, air and related resources on agricultural land and non-industrial private forestland. In addition, a purpose of EQIP is to help producers meet Federal, State, Tribal and local environmental regulations.