Harvesting the Best Farm Bill Possible (Part 1)

Farms, food, energy and conservation
Sep 5, 2018 5:30 PM ET

Harvesting the Best Farm Bill Possible (Part 1)

With the first public meeting of the 2018 Farm Bill conference committee taking place this morning, the House and Senate begin the process of agreeing on a compromise version of this landmark agricultural legislation.

Last updated in 2014 and amended every five years, the farm bill is the primary vehicle for federal food, agriculture, and nutrition policy. The House and Senate have both passed their 2018 versions of the farm bill and are now faced with the task of reconciling two very different takes on the legislation. Conservation policy is one of the major points of conflict between the two bills.

Food and agriculture make up about 5.5 percent of U.S. GDP and farming uses about 40 percent of the country’s land. The sector also contributes nine percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and consumes about 80 percent of US consumptive water suppliesAll told, food and agriculture are a major part of the U.S. economy and a major user of our country's resources, making the farm bill a key piece of U.S. environmental policy.

Maintaining conservation funding is essential

The section of the farm bill that covers conservation includes programs that support farmers in adopting conservation practices and allow major food companies to meet their sustainability goals without imposing undue burdens on the producers (farmers) in their supply chains. U.S. food companies are making ambitious commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and water use. As these companies respond to concerns from investors and consumers about the long-term sustainability of their supply, they rely on supportive federal policy to adopt more sustainable practices. As the House and Senate debate a final, compromise bill, they should consider the long term sustainability of our food supply, the global competitiveness of our major food companies, and the success of farmers adopting new conservation practices.

Conservation programs receive about five percent of total farm bill funding and are the primary federal source of support for conservation on private lands. These programs provide valuable resources to farmers and ranchers that both incentivize and provide technical support for incorporating sustainable practices into their operations. In addition, many major food companies rely on these conservation programs to meet their sustainability goals, which help to ensure the long-term success of their businesses.

The House version of the bill cuts overall funding for conservation programs by about $800 million over ten years. This reduction is on top of a $4 billion cut made in the 2014 Farm Bill, which brought the total conservation funding for 2014 through 2018 to $29 billion. While the Senate version maintains current funding levels for conservation, the cuts proposed in the House bill would seriously impede the adoption of overall farm-based conservation activities, harming the farmers and companies that depend on them.

Threats to working lands conservation programs

Perhaps the most significant change made to conservation programs under the House version of the farm bill is to the two largest working lands conservation programs—the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). Both of these programs provide technical and financial support for farmers looking to adopt conservation and sustainability practices.

Under the House legislation, CSP would be folded into EQIP and the two programs would be cut by a combined total of $5 billion over the next ten years. Because the combination of the two programs would actually include the elimination of several important aspects of CSP, the move would significantly reduce the ability of farmers to take advantage of the resources these programs provide. Under the House version of the farm bill, farms would not receive payments for advanced conservation enhancements such as managed intensive rotational grazing or maintaining riparian buffers. These techniques improve soil health, reduce agricultural runoff and incentivize farmers to adopt other practices that food companies want to see.

Under the Senate version, the two programs are kept separate, which is in line with current law. This approach recognizes that each program serves a separate and critical role in conservation—CSP supports existing conservation measures while EQIP supports new work on critical resources. In addition, both programs are in high demand and are already unable to serve all interested farmers. The final Farm Bill should keep these programs separate and fully funded.

Incentivizing sustainable practices with crop insurance

Crop insurance also impacts conservation practices. The federal crop insurance program helps producers ensure a return on the crops they plant so long as they adhere to given guidelines. These set guidelines must be followed for farmers to receive compensation in the event of a loss. However, some important conservation practices like certain methods of cover cropping are not classified as good farming practices. The Senate version of the farm bill would broaden the guidelines to include cover cropping and therefore alleviate the current confusion and lack of flexibility around qualifying for crop insurance payments as a producer utilizing cover crops.

Encouraging renewable energy on farms and in rural communities

Beyond the direct emissions from agricultural activities like methane emissions from livestock and waste, farms also emit significant greenhouse gases through their operational energy use. Agricultural operations account for about 1.7 percent of total national energy useThe Farm Bill can and should be used to encourage farmers and communities to use a greater proportion of renewable energy.

One such program is the Renewable Energy for America Program (REAP), which provides grants and loans to farmers for undergoing energy audits, making energy efficiency improvements and purchasing or developing renewable energy systems. Funding for REAP comes from both the farm bill and the agricultural appropriations process each year. The Senate version of this year’s farm bill would more than double funding for REAP, while the House version would completely eliminate funding.

Another such program is the Rural Energy Self-Sufficiency Initiative (RESSI), which is eliminated in the House version of the farm bill and preserved in the Senate version. RESSI assists rural communities in the development and installation of integrated renewable energy systems. Assisting farms and rural communities with the procurement of renewable energy will help farmers keep operation costs down and remain competitive, while also reducing greenhouse gas emissions and meeting long-term climate goals.

As the House and Senate work through the conference process to settle on a unified 2018 Farm Bill, every effort should be made to ensure that conservation programs are designed to support both the the bottom line of U.S. farmers and sustainability initiatives of major food companies. The programs highlighted above do just that and they should receive proper attention in the final compromise version of the 2018 Farm Bill.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this blog series posting soon...