Four Ways Congress Can Use the Budget Reconciliation to Help Farmers Build a Resilient Farm Future

October 1, 2021
USDA
Marcia DeLonge
Research Director and Sr. Scientist, Food and Environment

Congress is currently working out the details of a budget reconciliation package that would make a once-in-a-generation investment to respond to the climate crisis. As the House of Representatives and the Senate continue to hone their plan, one thing is clear: billions of dollars of conservation agriculture investments—the most in decades and essential to meeting the climate crisis head-on—are hanging in the balance. Here I’ll talk about this critical and urgent opportunity to support and expand programs that can build healthier soils and secure a more resilient farm future.

The need for more resilient food and farm systems has never been clearer

The last couple of years have brought numerous challenges for farmers, workers, and farm communities across the country. Our food systems continue to struggle with the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, decades of consolidation, and centuries of racial injustice. At the same time, climate change impacts like heat, drought, fires, and flooding have been dealing blow after blow to the agricultural sector and all who depend on it. The situation is dire.   

Just this summer, farmworkers suffered through new episodes of extreme heat, threatening—or even claimingtheir lives and their livelihoods. The West’s mega-droughts and unprecedented water cuts for some states that rely on the Colorado River are forcing many farmers to make difficult and long-lasting decisions about what to grow where. And wildfires and smoke have devastated farms and ranches, killing livestock, damaging crops, and threatening the future of agricultural communities.

Science-based hope for a resilient farm future

While the challenges are immense, there is also reason for hope. As the need to help the agricultural sector adapt to climate change impacts becomes increasingly clear, so do the opportunities to transform our food systems for the better. And such changes to our food systems are long overdue.

In particular, there is growing agreement that helping farmers adapt to climate change can be achieved while simultaneously helping them contribute to deep cuts to heat-trapping emissions. Several practices, such as cover cropping, crop rotations, and agroforestry can be implemented in ways that build resilience to extreme weather, pull carbon out of the atmosphere and into plants and soils, decrease reliance on synthetic fertilizers and fossil fuels, and more. And with nearly 900 million acres of farmland in the United States, just a little bit of progress on each acre could do a lot of good.

That’s a lot of opportunity to make significant change.

Moreover, such practices can yield other benefits as well, helping to manage longstanding agricultural challenges that are worsening with climate change. For example, these practices can help to decrease reliance on and exposure to toxic pesticides, ameliorate exposure to extreme heat, curb water pollution that damages human health and livelihoods, conserve depleting water supplies, and boost biodiversity.

While the potential is substantial, many obstacles persist. Farmers, many of whom are already operating on thin margins, cannot always afford the up-front costs and risks required to adopt new practices. For example, investments in cover crops may not start paying farmers back for around three or four years. Farmers may also be uncertain about the likelihood of a particular practice being effective on their own operations. And with climate impacts accelerating and intensifying, there’s much more to be learned to ensure farmers have the best possible tools at their disposal. This reality helps to explain why too many beneficial practices are present on too few acres. For instance, cover cropping is used on just 3.8 percent of cropland and agroforestry is used on just 1.5 percent of operations, according to the most recent estimates. Fortunately, the obstacles to change are not insurmountable, which brings us back to Congress.

Four ways Congress can help farmers be a part of the solution, to climate change and more

There are several ways Congress can help support farmers as they work to adapt to and mitigate the climate crisis. Just last week, we shared our top recommendations with Members of Congress, which you can read in full. Here are the highlights:

  1. Congress must maintain the key investments proposed to create a more resilient, equitable agriculture sector. Of the $3.5 trillion currently under consideration in the Congressional budget reconciliation package, $135 billion was carved out for the Senate Agriculture Committee to make essential investments in our food systems, $28 billion for climate-friendly conservation practices, $7.75 billion for climate-related agriculture and food research, billions for debt relief for underserved farmers, and more. While the exact numbers within the package have not yet been finalized, Congress has an important opportunity to stick to the Senate Agriculture Committee’s recommendations. Every dollar of these investments represents a vital opportunity to move toward truly resilient and just farm and food systems.
  2. Congress must drastically increase funding for proven conservation programs that farmers are clamoring for. Increasing investment in existing programs that directly support farmers in adoption of more sustainable practices is a straightforward and readily available solution. Such programs include the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), and Conservation Technical Assistance. Recent analysis has shown that between 2010 and 2020, more than two-thirds of farmers who applied to EQIP and well over half of farmers who applied to CSP were turned down, indicating that more farmers are ready and willing to adopt new practices, with the right support. 
  3. Congress must boost investments in science for more sustainable, resilient, equitable, and healthy food systems. Agricultural research is a good investment, and public agriculture research is particularly important as a means of prioritizing discoveries that best serve the public good. Despite the benefits, public agricultural research investments have been in decline in the US, and several key areas of research–such as agroecology and sustainable nutrition science–have been severely underfunded. Given the scope and scale of evolving challenges, we strongly recommend increases to key USDA research programs, especially the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program, the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), the Climate Hubs, and the Long-term Agroecosystem Research (LTAR) network.
  4. Congress must provide much-needed debt relief for underserved producers. Climate change impacts are already hitting many people in the food system hard. For farmers who have been underserved by USDA programs, these impacts serve to amplify any struggles that they may already face. Given rampant land consolidation and an aging and dwindling farming population, supporting farmers to be part of the climate solution must start with keeping farmers on the land. Thus, there is a pressing need for significant resources for underserved producers, and in particular, debt relief to stabilize the operations of producers who have not received a fair share of aid from recent federal support programs.

Even with these four highlighted investments, there’s much more work ahead to truly transform our food systems. For example, farmworkers urgently need immediate protections to ensure they will receive the rest, water, and shade required to do their jobs safely. And creating the conditions for more diversified, sustainable, and equitable food systems will require pushing back against the increasingly problematic levels of consolidation in land and markets.

Nevertheless, the upcoming spending packages offer an unprecedented opportunity to initiate a much-needed transformation to the nation’s farm and food systems, and to the people who have continued to support them, too, often at their own peril and against the odds. Armed with a growing body of science-based solutions and increasing momentum for change, the timing couldn’t be better. With the future of farmers, workers, and all of us at stake, I sincerely hope that Congress doesn’t let this opportunity slip by.