On Wednesday, June 13, the Senate Agriculture Committee passed its version of the farm bill 20-1. In stark contrast to the House, the Senate’s markup for its version of the farm bill was non-controversial and bipartisan. The committee avoided changing the Nutrition Title, which is what sank the GOP-only bill in the House. At the markup, topics discussed ranged from crop insurance to industrial hemp and mandatory funding for the Energy Title. And while the changes to the previous bill were not sweeping, there were some positive changes made that could help farmers adapt to a changing climate by helping them build healthy soils.
Some call it climate – many call it weather – but the plain truth is that extreme events such as drought, flooding, as well as changes in temperature and precipitation, are already impacting farm operations. Combined with a growing need to tackle the environmental impacts of food production (agriculture is responsible for 9 percent of domestic greenhouse gas emissions, according to the EPA) there is increased interest from farmers, ranchers and policy makers in how farming operations may become more resilient to these extremes, and in the process, reduce their impact on the environment.
These extreme events aren’t far into the future. Farmers and ranchers are already facing unprecedented extremes that impact their livelihoods and production capacity. To remain profitable going forward, producers will need to become more resilient to such extreme events that are becoming all too commonplace. One tool increasingly being turned to by farmers and ranchers is building soil health by returning organic matter to the soil.
Techniques such as no-till, cover-cropping, grazing management, buffer strips, and perennials increase soil’s water-holding capacity and boost soil organic matter. By boosting soil organic content, soils become one of the best tools available for combatting climate change, acting as carbon sinks.
In the Senate farm bill, the Conservation Title (II) contains a few new programs that will hopefully help move the needle on soil health and build on the growing movement around the importance of soil. Tweaks to the Crop Insurance Title (I) will hopefully further incentivize farmers to utilize cover crops. And finally, a new program enabling USDA to collect data on conservation practices will hopefully lead to a richer understanding of how various conservation practices impact farm and ranch operations.
Conservation Title (II)
Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP)
- Sec. 2308 Soil Health Demonstration Project, which authorizes a pilot project funded at $15 million annually as part of EQIP. The pilot will explore both financial incentives for investing in soil health measures in various regions and protocols for measuring soil health. This program was championed by Senator Wyden (D-OR).
- Section 2403 Soil Health and Income Protection Program, which will assist landowners with conserving and improving soil health, as well as water and wildlife. Contracts will be 3, 4, or 5 years.
- Sec. 2405 Soil Testing and Remediation Assistance, which will establish a soil testing protocol as well as outreach and technical assistance. It will also assist in remediating contaminated soil.
Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP)
In addition to these new programs, under the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), the largest working lands conservation program, payments for cover crop activities and advanced grazing management are included. Importantly, the term “resource-conserving crop rotation” now includes soil organic matter.
Crop Insurance Title (I)
Under the crop insurance title, cover crops are more explicitly treated. Cover crops can help build soil organic matter and help buffer farmers from losses due to drought, pests and floods. Unfortunately, confusion over their treatment under the federal crop insurance program has led to reluctance from insurers to insure farmers utilizing cover crops, though this is beginning to change.
Under the Senate farm bill, Title I more explicitly states that using cover crops will not affect the insurability of other crops, so long as cover crops are planted according to generally accepted guidelines. Hopefully, this will provide additional clarity to crop insurers and farmers seeking to utilize cover crops.
Additionally, under Expansion of Performance-Based Discount (Sec. 11109), risk-reducing practices like precision techniques related to irrigation or fertilization, crop rotations and cover crops will be eligible practices for crop insurance discounts, starting in 2020. That means if farmers implement some of these soil health building practices on their fields, they also could be eligible for a reduction in their crop insurance payments, thus incentivizing good stewardship practices.
Lastly, under “miscellaneous programs”, a new program, Data on Conservation Practices (Sec. 1247) will enable USDA to collect data on how crop yields, soil health and other factors are affected by conservation practices.
The idea that soil health is the key to agricultural productivity is not a new idea. In 1937, upon the passage of the congressionally mandated Uniform Soil Conservation Law (the precursor to the USDA National Resource Conservation Service), Franklin D. Roosevelt wrote to state Governors, “The dust storms and floods of the last few years have underscored the importance of programs to control soil erosion. I need not emphasize to you the seriousness of the problem and the desirability of our taking effective action, as a Nation and in the several States, to conserve the soil as our basic asset. The Nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.”
In building soil health, farmers and ranchers can be better prepared to weather whatever Mother Nature throws their way. Hopefully, these commonsense changes to the farm bill will empower them to prioritize soil health in a more coordinated fashion.
For more information see:
- Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, Senate Committee on Agriculture
- Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 Section-by-Section, Senate Committee on Agriculture
- Wyden Secures Provision in Senate Farm Bill to Improve Soil Health, Address Climate Change, Senator Wyden
- How Federal Crop Insurance Program Reforms Can Reduce Costs, Empower Famers, and Protect Natural Resources, NRDC