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Proposed House Farm Bill Falls Short in Properly Underpinning 21st Century Agriculture – updated

Editor’s Note: This update of our blog clarifies the amounts and conservation program targets of funding reductions called for in the House farm bill legislation.

As U.S. agriculture makes its way well into the 21st century, the sector finds itself at a critical juncture in its pursuit of the sustainable production of food, feed, fiber and fuel, not just for domestic consumption, but also for much of the world.

The economic downturn America’s farmers have found themselves experiencing over the past four years demonstrates their vulnerability to changing conditions, including often uncertain market forces that impact commodity supply and demand. And in recent decades, changes in climate have placed additional pressures on productivity, net farm income and soil and water resources.

Given these uncertainties, it is important that policy makers provide U.S. farmers, ranchers and forestland owners the tools – programs, funding mechanisms, incentives, tax breaks and research, among others – they need to meet the challenges that will likely further intensify going forward.

But in the light of this reality, a draft farm bill intended to set agricultural policy in this country for the next five years, is, at best, disappointing in its weak approach to programs that can help insure a stable path through uncertain times, such as farm-based energy development, energy efficiency initiatives for rural businesses, and land conservation.

Scheduled for markup by the House Agriculture Committee this morning, the proposed legislation drops the traditional “Energy Title” and folds its programs under the Rural Development Title. Furthermore, the bill would strip programs of mandatory funding they may have received in previous years, making their chances of survival daunting in a budget-hawkish environment. (The bill will undergo intense scrutiny whenever it gets to the Senate, where it has drawn criticism on several fronts.)

The Energy Title, which has been included in the farm bill since 2002, has helped farmers, ranchers, small businesses and rural communities generate thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in economic development.

Those programs at risk include the high-profile, widely used Rural Energy for America Program (REAP), which carries no funding in the actual bill, though it is marked in a bill summary for $45 million in discretionary funding. REAP has supported more than 15,000 energy-saving and clean energy-producing projects in rural areas across the country since 2012.

Other programs seen as critical in their contributions to agriculture’s economic health are left with small, annual discretionary amounts, including the Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP, $25 million), which supports U.S. cellulosic biofuel production; and the Biorefinery, Renewable Chemical and Biobased Product Manufacturing Assistance Program ($75 million).

The Conservation Title of the draft farm bill also falls short. The voluntary conservation programs are incredibly popular – some 75 percent of those applying for the program have to be turned away for lack of funding – and contribute to our increasing need to protect water resources and mitigate climate.

While acreage would increase under the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), the nation’s largest in terms of land enrolled, rental payments would go down, offsetting – if not lessening – the benefits it offers in taking environmentally sensitive lands out of production.

As for what advocates call the nation’s premier working lands initiative, the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) would be rolled over into the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), despite distinct differences in the programs’ respective approaches to conservation. A Congressional Budget Office analysis shows the move to incorporate the CSP into EQIP would  ultimately reduce combined funding for the two programs by $5 billion. When calculating spending called for by the bill for all programs in the Conservation Title, including some increases, total funding over the next decade would fall by nearly $800 million. And that follows a $4 billion cut in the 2012 farm bill.

Solutions from the Land (SfL) reminds federal policy makers that 21st century challenges require 21st century solutions. The policies and programs of the past will not meet the needs of today and tomorrow. SfL urges House members to retain and properly fund the Farm Bill’s Energy Title and conservation programs like CSP that reward producers for applying systems and practices that deliver multiple solutions from the land – food, feed, fiber, energy, clean water, biodiversity and a host of ecosystem services that benefit farms, ranches, forests and the environment.