Lawmakers Take Early Look at Climate-Critical Farm Bill Conservation Programs

February 3, 2022

Members of the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Conservation and Forestry held a hearing with key USDA officials Wednesday that marks an important first step in the development of a 2023 Farm Bill that can be crafted to give farmers, ranchers and forestland owners the best opportunity to meet conservation and growing climate challenges.

As Subcommittee Chair Abigail Spanberger (D-VA) noted at the top of the hearing, the USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) and Farm Services Agency (FSA) are taking important steps to bring farmers to the table on climate-smart agriculture (CSA).

Among the agencies’ actions are NRCS’ recent move to make Conservation Incentive Contracts offered growers through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) available nationwide and an upcoming launch of a new, streamlined EQIP cover crop program.

NRCS has also modified its Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) to allow producers to immediately re-enroll the following year, making it easier for growers to participate. The department’s recent $225-million investment in the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) that will enable more investments that leverage partner dollars and participation. Collectively, these moves undertaken by the agency demonstrate an effort to make these programs more accessible and in better alignment with conditions farmers and ranchers are experiencing in their operations.

The FSA last week opened general enrollment into the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), seen by department officials as a key tool in the Biden administration effort to address climate change and achieve other natural resource benefits. The General CRP signup will extend through March 11 and Grassland CRP signup is set for April 4-May 13. Farmers and landowners enrolled 4.6 million acres into CRP signups in 2021, including 2.5 million acres in the largest Grassland CRP signup in history. There are currently 22.1 million acres enrolled, and FSA officials, citing increased rental rates, are aiming to reach the 25.5-million-acre cap statutorily set for this fiscal year, ending Sept. 30.

Last year, the FSA enacted a Climate-Smart Practice Incentive for CRP General and Continuous signups to better target CRP on addressing climate change. This incentive aims to increase carbon sequestration and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. CRP’s climate-smart practices include establishment of trees and permanent grasses, development of wildlife habitat and wetland restoration. The Climate-Smart Practice Incentive is annual and the amount is based on the benefits of each practice type.

SfL is encouraged by the early congressional look at these and other programs that can enhance the role of agriculture in delivering high value ecosystem services and stemming climate change. However, we urge lawmakers to authorize and provide significant funding for these and other conservation-related initiatives as a work on a new farm bill gets underway.

Meanwhile, the president’s comprehensive “Build Back Better” plan may be on life support, but it is critically important that lawmakers retain the provisions in the measure that provide billions of dollars for critical investments in agriculture and our rural communities. Included in the package are multiple bipartisan proposals that House Agriculture Committee members have underlined, including $40 billion that will help fund efforts leading to healthier, more resilient forests that can provide resources to mitigate climate change; and $7.5 billion in ag research that. among other efforts, will explore how to make farming operations more climate resilient.

SfL is also encouraged by remarks from Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack this week touting his department’s efforts to speed up policy steps that can help create climate-smart-agriculture (CSA) commodities. He told a Bipartisan Policy Center event on climate, agriculture and forestry Wednesday that these commodities will be grown with practices that help combat climate change and make farms more resilient, all while financially rewarding farmers with a premium price for adopting new CSA practices. Vilsack emphasized that the policy steps needed to give growers CSA tools must be adopted immediately, given the years of data collection needed to ultimately refine the information and measurement tools the department already offers.

The Bipartisan Policy Center used the event featuring Vilsack and others to issue a report calling on Congress to significantly hike funding for USDA stewardship programs such as EQIP and CSP that can generate climate mitigation and help growers earn cash for their climate-smart practices.

Meanwhile, an announcement is expected soon on how the USDA will operate it climate change pilot programs, with Vilsack saying his department will help develop climate-smart commodities with value added, and then make it easier for growers to participate in the resulting, privately run, CSA commodity markets. SfL applauds and endorses this pathway for further incentivizing and rewarding producers for the ecosystem services sustainable operations provide.

SfL has long held the view that good climate smart agriculture systems and practices provide high value conservation and other ecosystems services like climate change mitigation. CSA offers both positive outcomes and, despite what some in Congress may imply, does not handcuff policy makers and growers with an either/or choice. Negotiations around the 2023 Farm Bill provide another opportunity to align federal investments with producer needs and outcomes that benefit all. Increased federal investments in pragmatic conservation programs that benefit producers, the public and the planet can and should enjoy bipartisan support. Who in Congress is willing to advocate for policies, programs and investments that will incentivize and enable producers to deliver the wide range of goods and services sustainably managed farms, ranches and woodlands provide?

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