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Farm Bill

The Farm Bill is one of the most important federal policies affecting conservation and wildlife habitat. It offers the single largest source of funding for conservation on private lands.

Photo of windbreaks, credit USDA NRCS

Through its voluntary conservation programs, farmers, ranchers, and forest owners work with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to create habitat for wildlife and pollinators, conserve sensitive grasslands and wetlands, improve soil health, sequester carbon, and address water quantity and quality concerns. With pressures on the landscape ever increasing, a Farm Bill with strong conservation provisions is more important now than ever.

The federal Farm Bill has existed in different forms since the age of the Dust Bowl and comes up for reauthorization approximately every five years. The National Wildlife Federation works to ensure that Farm Bill conservation programs are reauthorized at appropriate levels, achieve maximum wildlife and environmental benefits, and are fully funded during the annual budget appropriations process. The latest Farm Bill passed by Congress was The Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 (the 2018 Farm Bill), which funds programs through 2023. Read more about the National Wildlife Federation’s analysis of the 2018 Farm Bill and our press statement on its passing.

The National Wildlife Federation urges the U.S. Department of Agriculture to swiftly implement the 2018 Farm Bill highlighting conservation priorities as outlined in oral comments.

The Path to the 2018 Farm Bill

Photo of winter wheat near the Bridger Mountains, credit USDA NRCS

The previous Farm Bill passed by Congress was The Agricultural Act of 2014 (the 2014 Farm Bill), which funded programs through 2018. (Read more about the National Wildlife Federation’s analysis of the 2014 Farm Bill.) During the lead up to the 2018 bill, the National Wildlife Federation called on the 2018 Farm Bill Conference Committee to pass a Farm Bill that contained strong funding for conservation programs, did not undermine environmental laws, and included strong conservation provisions, as outlined in this letter. Read about our 2018 Farm Bill Principles in further detail here.

Farm Bill Conservation Programs

Several different Farm Bill conservation programs have helped improve wildlife habitat in the U.S. Learn about the unique functions of each program below.

The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) pays farmers annual rental payments under 10-15 year contracts, to set aside marginal land. The program also pays up to half the cost of establishing conservation practices that address soil erosion, water quality, wetland and forest enhancement, and wildlife management. Examples of these practices include establishing vegetative cover or trees on erodible cropland, planting native grasses, thinning or conducting controlled burning of pine forests, and placing filterstrips along stream banks to stem polluted runoff and provide habitat for wildlife. The Agricultural Act of 2014 reduced the amount of acreage allowed in the CRP gradually each year, down to 24 million acres allowed by 2018. There has been a drastic reduction in CRP over the last few farm bills from a high of over 39 million acres in the 2002 Farm Bill.

The Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) is a new program created by the Agricultural Act of 2014. It combines the former Wetland Reserve Program (WRP) , the Grassland Reserve Program (GRP), and the Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program (FRPP) in to two tracks: the wetland easements component and the agricultural land easements component. Through ACEP, eligible conservation partners including non-governmental organizations, private landowners, tribes, land trusts, and others can leverage federal funding to preserve wetland and agricultural lands in long term easements. The 2014 Farm Bill reduced the amount of mandatory funding for ACEP over five years along with other limitations. Additionally, it is subject to being reduced during the annual budget appropriations process resulting in severe cuts by 2018.

Unlike programs that pay farmers to set aside certain lands, the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) rewards agricultural producers for environmentally-friendly measures they are willing to undertake on the lands that they keep in production. CSP offers payments to producers who maintain a high level of conservation on their land and who agree to adopt higher levels of stewardship. Eligible lands include cropland, pastureland, rangeland and non-industrial forestland. The 2008 Farm Bill funded the CSP at 17 million acres per year; the 2014 Farm Bill funded an additional enrollment of 10 million acres per year..

Similar to CSP, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) provides technical and financial assistance to farmers and ranchers to implement conservation practices on their lands. Practices are based on a set of national priorities that are adapted to each state. These priorities include: reduction of point- and non-point source pollution to watersheds and groundwater; water conservation; reduction of soil erosion; and promotion of wildlife habitat for at-risk-species. The Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program (WHIP) was combined into EQIP in the 2014 Farm Bill. WHIP was a voluntary program that pays up to 75 percent of the cost to private landowners of enhancing wildlife habitat on their land. Currently, a minimum of 5 percent of EQIP funding goes to wildlife practices.

The Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) created in the 2014 Farm Bill establishes a way for conservation partners, USDA, and state agencies to jointly provide landowners with conservation assistance by designing and installing practices on working lands. RCPP is partially funded through CSP, EQIP, and ACEP and also leverages private funding. However a complicated funding structure and restrictions on planning for future technical assistance have hampered the program.

How  Farm Bill Conservation Programs Benefit Soil, Water, Wildlife, and Climate

Many conservation programs established through the federal Farm Bill offer solutions to farmers through technical advice, cost sharing, and land payments to reduce the environmental impacts of agriculture. These programs help prevent complete degradation of numerous ecosystems, wildlife habitats, and watersheds. Farm Bill conservation programs offer some of the most cost-effective solutions available while providing vital environmental protection and employment opportunities in rural America.

Photo of antelope grazing in a field, credit USDA NRCSFor example, through the CRP,  farmers and landowners practicing erosion and nutrient loss prevention from farmlands receive payments when they take their land out of production and plant perennial grasses. Permanent land cover of perennial grasses is beneficial because it prevents the use of chemicals—reducing agricultural emissions and nutrient runoff—increases carbon sequestration, and the grasses compete better against weeds and insects.

CRP also benefits wildlife by incentivizing farmers to provide vital cover within agricultural working lands that support numerous species, such as grassland birds or waterfowl. When CRP fields are in close proximity to wetlands, the potential to increase duck production is greater. Species such as mallards, gadwalls, and northern pintails can benefit from CRP cover immensely.

Other programs, such as CSP, pay farmers already implementing conservation practices and provides an incentive to implement further conservation practices for the duration of a contract. Additionally, EQIP provides cost-share and technical assistance to farmers to help them implement numerous techniques that improve waterways, reduce nutrient runoff, capture methane emissions, and it provides funds for implementing cover crops or transitioning to organic production.

Though just a few benefits of Farm Bill conservation programs are described, there are many opportunities for farmers and landowners to help improve soil, water, wildlife, and climate.

Farm Bill Success: Greater Sage-Grouse

From 2010-2014, EQIP helped restore 4.4 million acres of sagebrush habitat through the Sage Grouse Initiative across 11 states. 

The signature greater sage-grouse roams around the sagebrush steppe of Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington. Thanks to Farm Bill conservation programs such as EQIP, encroaching threats (i.e. conifers, high-risk fences) to the greater sage-grouse are removed and new grazing systems that increase nesting cover—like the rest-rotation systems—are installed.

Conservation Funding

The Farm Bill authorizes spending for many different programs, including conservation, nutrition, energy, and crop insurance. Although it makes up a much smaller portion of the bill, the conservation title authorizes and provides a guideline for spending on farm conservation programs, which account for about 5 percent, or approximately $26.1 billion, of spending on the 2014 Farm Bill. 

The National Wildlife Federation works to ensure that there is adequate funding for programs to help farmers install and maintain conservation practices on their land, as well as land set aside for conservation and wildlife uses. There are two major processes that affect how much funding Farm Bill programs receive: authorization and appropriations. Authorization, through mandatory and discretionary funding, and appropriations are the two important steps in the process of funding Farm Bill programs. The National Wildlife Federation works to support robust funding for conservation programs in both steps of the process.

Approximately every five years, the House and Senate Agriculture Committees write a Farm Bill that sets initial funding levels and authorization of Farm Bill programs. The appropriations process, on the other hand, is an annual process governed by the House and Senate Appropriations Committee. Funding for Farm Bill programs in the appropriations process is often significantly reduced during annual appropriations.

For some Farm Bill programs, Congress used the traditional method of funding—authorizing a maximum amount for each year that must then be appropriated annually. This is often referred to as "discretionary funding." Discretionary conservation programs include the Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative and Great Lakes Basin Program.

For most of the major USDA conservation programs, the Farm Bill provides "mandatory" funding for each year. Mandatory funding does not rely on annual Congressional appropriations bills; however, it is subject being reduced during the appropriations process. These cuts are known as "Changes in Mandatory Program Spending," or CHIMPS.

Mandatory funding provides a road map for conservation programs for the life of each Farm Bill. In some cases, the program size is determined by acres, rather than dollars. For example, under the 2014 Farm Bill, USDA is allowed to enroll up to 24 million acres nationwide in the Conservation Reserve Program (a reduction from 32 million acres in the 2008 Farm Bill). For other programs, the 2014 Farm Bill provided a set level of mandatory funding each year. The various working lands programs are included in this category.

Even though most conservation programs have "mandatory" funding, Congress can still reduce the amount of funding authorized in the Farm Bill by limiting the funds, or capping the acres that can be enrolled through the annual budget or appropriations bills. Such Changes in Mandatory Program Spending, or CHIMPS, have been responsible for the increasing cuts to conservation programs in recent years.

Farm Bill conservation programs are highly popular with farmers and beneficial to taxpayers. The National Wildlife Federation is working to ensure that conservation does not continue to be limited due to lack of funding.

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