The House Agriculture Subcommittee on Conservation and Forestry held its first hearing of the 117th Congress this week, drawing attention to the enormous potential in farm productivity and profitability offered by conservation agriculture. The panel also highlighted the increased soil carbon sequestration and reduced greenhouse gas emissions that conservation measures can generate in helping stem climate change.
Subcommittee Chair Abigail Spanberger (D-VA) said the better practices can be optimized through the Farm Bill – legislation that traditionally sets U.S. agriculture policy for five years and is scheduled for reauthorization in 2023. She noted that Title II of the Farm Bill authorizes programs that provide much needed technical and financial assistance to encourage the adoption of conservation measures like cover crops, reduced and no-till management systems, and prescribed grazing systems — among many other climate smart practices.
The USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and Farm Service Agency (FSA) are the primary federal agencies responsible for implementing Title II conservation programs, which include the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). The initiative provides financial and technical assistance to enrolled farmers who remove environmentally sensitive land from agricultural production and plant approved species that will improve environmental quality. Unfortunately, the CRP seems to be losing ground in USDA conservation efforts, with program capped in the 2018 Farm Bill at 27 million acres by 2023, far below the peak enrollment of 37 million acres in 2007.
Other critical programs include the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), and the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP).
The Congressional Budget Office estimates that Farm Bill conservation spending from 2018 to 2028 will reach $59.8 billion – approximately 7 percent of the estimated $867 billion enacted to fund the entire Farm Bill over that period
Solutions from the Land (SfL) has long called for boosting these important programs through greater funding and increased USDA personnel to fully carry out these initiatives. Maintaining those assertions in testimony at Wednesday’s subcommittee hearing was Dr. Keith Paustian, University Distinguished Professor with the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences at Colorado State University, and an SfL senior advisor.
Paustian follows a path marked in late 2019, when SfL Co-Chair Fred Yoder shared with the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis a variety of benefits available through climate smart agriculture (CSA), an approach promoted by SfL that offers three complementing and interlocking strategies to address climate challenges. Yoder reinforced the role of the ag sector in developing effective policies, noting that the reason CSA is an effective strategy for engendering farmer participation and support is that the approach places farmers at the center of all climate discussions and decisions.
SfL continues its support of measures advocated by Yoder to enhance ag’s role in addressing climate change, including rebuilding the capacity of the NRCS, as well as boosting state conservation agencies and local conservation districts to provide the technical assistance needed to write and implement CSA plans. Lawmakers also should restore the department’s ability to conduct agricultural and economic research in support of CSA and provide funding to the nation’s land-grant colleges to expand CSA research and extension work.
While promoting mechanisms through which farmers can deliver climate mitigation services – carbon dioxide captured by crops, grasses and trees and sequestered in the soil; and emissions reductions from improved agricultural management practices – lawmakers can also help the U.S. agriculture and forestry sectors avoid and offset greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from fossil fuels by promoting the use of biomass to produce renewable energy, fuels and biobased products.
It’s also important to note that the conservation programs mounted by the USDA and supported by SfL can serve as a very significant way to achieve the 30x’30 goal advocated by the White House. Last week the Biden administration released a preliminary report that outlines guiding principles and early priorities for its 30x’30 campaign. On balance, the report aligns well with SfL’s guiding principles, clearly embracing voluntary approaches to conservation and land management and locally led, collaborative strategies.
Wednesday’s hearing offered a door through which those who champion the role of farmers, ranchers and foresters in addressing climate change can now push to strengthen voluntary conservation programs that support climate smart agriculture systems and practices. We urge stakeholders to reach out to their lawmakers in Washington and call on them to give the agriculture sector the tools and motivation they need in this ongoing effort.