A House subcommittee hearing this week focused on conservation programs provided for under the 2018 Farm Bill adopted a little more than a year ago, an event that underscored the roll of these initiatives in enabling working lands to better adapt to – and mitigate – the impacts of a changing climate.
Programs provided for under the Conservation Title of the farm bill boost soil health, which, in turn, helps sequester and retain carbon and greenhouse gases (GHGs) that scientists say are raising temperatures and generating volatile weather episodes. And farmers are among the first to testify to recent years of progressively higher temperatures that are contributing to more drought and wildfires, torrential rainfalls that produce flooding, and other damaging weather events like tornadoes and hail.
In addition to ramping up soil health and reducing soil erosion, farm bill conservation programs also improve water quality, protect wildlife habitat, and, improve crop quality and increase crop yields – all while addressing the root causes of climate change.
Tuesday’s hearing underscored the importance of working land programs that help farmers enhance the sustainability of their operations while keeping land in production. Two of the primary farm bill programs that support working land efforts are the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). Together, CSP and EQIP provide significant financial and technical assistance to farmers and ranchers across the country looking to maintain or improve their land stewardship. Working lands conservation programs improve natural resource stewardship, help farmers increase their profitability (for example, by requiring fewer inputs, thus reducing operational costs), and boost operational longevity.
Of particular importance is the 2018 Farm Bill’s encouragement of conservation strategies at the local and regional level. Tuesday’s hearing topic is on point for Conservation and Forestry Subcommittee Chair Abigail Spanberger, a Democrat who represents a district in the Virginia portion of the 64,000-square-acre Chesapeake Bay Watershed, home to 87,000 agricultural operations that produce dairy and beef cattle, poultry, grain and produce, as well as serve as home for numerous nursery outlets.
During the hearing, Spanberger voiced a point emphasized by Solutions from the Land in its longstanding work promoting Climate Smart Agriculture: Those who work the land should take a lead in developing land-related policy. “Farmers know what works for their land and for the ecosystems they’ve operated in for generations far better than anyone else,” she said, adding that the working land conservation programs promoted by the 2018 Farm Bill, like CSP and EQIP, give growers a greater role in helping to expand soil strategies and generate clean water in their own operations.
But Spanberger also noted at Tuesday’s hearing, the programs are only as good as the resources and manpower USDA puts into them. Conservation spending in the 2014 Farm Bill was cut by $6 billion over the 10-year time frame by which all bills are measured under congressional budget rules. Nothing was done to restore that cut in 2018. In fact, some $5 billion was moved last year from programs like CSP and EQIP to other, smaller conservation programs, leaving an even bigger funding gap in the programs that growers can implement on their operations to help adapt and build resilience to a changing climate.
The short-sighted budget cuts can only be addressed by Congress when the next farm bill is developed in a few years, which means USDA must make the best use of the funding that is available. Rep. Spanberger pressed upon the department officials who were called upon to testify Tuesday that the field offices must be fully staffed by those who implement the working lands programs and see they are carried out.
USDA officials assured subcommittee members (and House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-MN, who sat in with the subcommittee) that personnel needs will be met. Nonetheless, SfL urges stakeholders in the field to make their congressional representatives aware if there are, in fact, manpower shortages – or any other factors – that are impeding the implementation of these extremely important programs. With the appropriations shortfalls already crimping needed conservation measures, farmers and ranchers must be given every possibility to work with the funding that is there and take the steps needed to meet the challenge of an alarmingly changing climate.