Filter strips on a Michigan farm, part of a USDA conservation partnership. Photo: USDA/CC BY 2.0 (Flickr)

The Bipartisan 2018 Farm Bill Brings Some Consequences, Cautious Optimism for Conservation

, senior scientist | December 18, 2018, 1:50 pm EST
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Last week, 11 weeks since the 2014 farm bill expired, Congress passed the latest version, the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, which President Trump is expected to sign into law. This $867 billion food and farm policy passed with overwhelming bipartisan support, and it includes some important wins for farmers and consumers.

For example, the bill protects the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program from punitive work requirements, establishes a new Local Agriculture Market Program to strengthen regional economies and connect farmers with consumers, increases funding for critical research programs such as the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative, and increases support for new farmers and farmers of color.

Although there are many things to celebrate in the new farm bill, there were also disappointments. This was the case for conservation, which was a bit of a mixed bag—and worth a closer look.

To get straight to the punchline, the new farm bill keeps conversation funding steady overall, and it certainly could have been (much) worse. However, faced with today’s growing challenges, status quo in conservation feels like a step back. Worse, a crucial conservation program suffered a significant setback.

Why worry about conservation, the smallest big piece of the farm bill?

Before getting into the details, it’s worth noting that there’s some dark history behind both the farm bill and its conservation programs. Each can be traced back to the 1930’s, when aggressive expansion of croplands (in part due to policy) and an 8-year drought (exacerbated by agriculture) led to the Dust Bowl — and tremendous suffering. In response, the federal government worked both to directly support struggling farmers, and to restore the damaged land at the heart of the tragedy. Over time, the emergent farm bill and its soil-conscious conservation programs have evolved and expanded.

Recently, the farm bill’s conservation programs have received a relatively small portion of funding (accounting for just 6 percent of spending, about $6 billion annually, in the 2014 farm bill). This investment seems too low, considering that the included programs offer otherwise rare support for farmers looking to adopt practices that could, say, prevent another dust bowl or build vital resilience to this century’s intensifying extreme climate conditions.

Where the 2018 farm bill conservation title falls short

With that context in mind, let’s get back to today. As I mentioned above, the newest version of the farm bill didn’t quite cut it when it came to conservation. There are two big reasons for this:

  1. First, by failing to increase requested and urgently-needed support for farmers, this bill let a big opportunity slip through the cracks. Yes, that’s right—farmers have been looking for additional support for conservation practices. The chronic waiting lists for USDA conservation programs are one indication of that. But also, there’s this survey of more than 2,800 farmers from 7 states, in which three-quarters of farmers indicated that they wanted to see policies offering more incentives to adopt practices that reduce runoff and soil loss, improve water quality, and increase resilience to floods and droughts. This demand should come as no surprise, as farmers are increasingly struggling with extreme weather, and research shows that these challenges can be addressed by building soil health. Meanwhile, a growing list of scientific studies is showing how we all benefit from farms with healthier soils, suggesting it’s critical to scale these up to secure clean air, clean water, food security, and a sustainable future. So, by letting down farmers, we all took a loss.
  2. Second, in slashing the valued Conservation Stewardship Program, this bill was a setback for many—especially the pioneering farmers who raise the bar. Unfortunately, avoiding an increase to conservation funding while squeezing in new opportunities meant that something had to go. Even more unfortunately, the program that bore the brunt of these cuts was the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), an exceptional program that we have estimated quadruples the value of each taxpayer dollar. This high return on investment is made possible by the program’s embrace of holistic, systems-science approaches, something that leaders in organizations such as the USDA and the National Academies have recently called for more of. Not only that, but CSP is already popular and chronically underfunded, with between 50 and 75 percent of applying farmers unable to make it into the program each year. Needless to say, the cuts to this program are confounding, and they will hurt.

Some key wins soften the blow

Despite the disappointments, some welcome changes in the title help soften the blow. For one thing, the other major working lands program, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) received a slight bump in funding. It was also amended in a few ways that could strengthen its effectiveness, such as through supporting soil health and organic farming. Additionally, the final bill tasks USDA with improving coordination between EQIP and CSP, which we hope can be done in a way that preserve the integrity of both programs, while optimizing resources.

Other noteworthy changes include an expansion of the Conservation Reserve Program, which takes environmentally sensitive land out production, and the Regional Conservation Partnership Program. The latter, as a public-private partnership, has the power to pull more funding into conservation efforts, although the usual risks apply.

Looking beyond the farm bill to advance a more resilient agriculture

In addition to some of the pieces of good news in the conservation title, there are other things that conservation fans can also be happy about. For one, agricultural research funding got a boost in the new farm bill, including more funding for the Organic Research Extension Initiative and the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research, as well as a new pilot project, the Agriculture Advanced Research and Development Authority (AGARDA), that seeks innovations to improve agricultural sustainability and resilience. If invested wisely, these dollars can be leveraged to find better solutions for farmers and help each future conservation dollar go further.

Also, although the farm bill is the primary federal mechanism to get conservation agriculture moving, it’s not the only mechanism. Many state governments have been taking matters into their own hands through state-level healthy soils policies. Further, within the food sector, industry leaders have been taking initiative and making commitments that promise to support farmers in driving change.

Does the new farm bill invest enough in the conservation practices that will prevent disasters and protect the future of farming? I don’t think so. But, if we play our cards right, we have a lot to work with.

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