Farm deal boosts one conservation effort, sacrifices others

Source: Marc Heller, E&E News reporter • Posted: Friday, November 30, 2018

The tentative deal on the 2018 farm bill is likely to boost the Conservation Reserve Program at the price of other conservation initiatives, reflecting fiscal limitations and policy fights that shaped talks over that part of the five-year legislation.

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) told reporters the deal — details of which remained unclear even to lawmakers while the Congressional Budget Office prepared cost estimates — appears to include provisions he’s pushed on CRP, including allowing farmers to mechanically harvest a third of their set-aside acreage every year, typically planted with grass.

The tentative agreement reached among negotiators also appears nearly certain to increase the acreage cap on CRP — a goal sought to differing degrees by both the House and Senate versions of the farm bill, H.R. 2 — though lawmakers said they weren’t sure what the final number would be. The program is currently limited to 24 million acres.

Senate Agriculture Committee leaders said that text of a conference report on the farm bill probably won’t be available until the beginning of next week, and the panel’s ranking member, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), told reporters that she’s spoken to members about provisions important to them but hasn’t distributed written materials.

Votes on the deal in the House and Senate could come later next week or the following week as Congress finishes business for the year.

The conservation title, in particular, reflects the balancing act negotiators faced in weighing the competing priorities of lawmakers and constituent groups, while staying within cost limitations. Allowing more acreage to be set aside in CRP adds to that program’s cost, for instance, as farmers are paid to enter into decadelong contracts. Negotiators have been looking for ways to tweak how the payments, linked to market rental rates, are calculated.

Stabenow cited the fiscal juggling yesterday, saying leaders want to be sure the numbers work out before publicizing details.

“We’ve had other issues before where we make some changes in conservation and that turns out to cost more than we thought, so we have to go back and cut something,” Stabenow said.

House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway (R-Texas), like other committee leaders, declined to discuss specific proposals but said that conservation programs were among the last to be settled in months of talks.

Like many aspects of the farm bill, conservation reflects a political balance among regions and states. Programs such as CRP, the Conservation Stewardship Program and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program compete for funding and are more heavily used in some states than in others.

While CRP is popular in Western states, another program — EQIP, which embraces some of the same practices — dominates in some Eastern states. And CSP, the nation’s biggest conservation program by acreage, isn’t as popular as EQIP in the East, for instance.

The two programs serve different purposes, conservation and environmental groups say. CRP allows farmland to be retired, at least temporarily, to grasses that are popular with wildlife and hunting groups. CSP encourages conservation practices across entire farms, while EQIP is more targeted.

Despite the varying goals, the programs have been traded off one another as a final farm bill takes shape and lawmakers look for ways to pay for changes. Groups such as the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition have warned that increases in some programs could come at the expense of others — an approach the House took in eliminating CSP in its bill earlier this year.

The emerging agreement may save CSP in name, following the Senate’s lead, groups following the issue said, but possibly not at funding levels that preserve its importance.

Farm groups haven’t been united on the conservation programs. CSP has critics, who say farmers have been discouraged by bureaucratic requirements; the American Farm Bureau Federation, the biggest lobbying group for farmers, hasn’t been outspoken in favor of saving CSP.

Overall, news of an agreement brought praise from farm groups and lawmakers eager to see a bill enacted this year.

Rep. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.), a member of the House Agriculture Committee, said he was relieved to see subsidized crop insurance preserved. Farm bankruptcies have increased sixfold in his state in the past three or four years, he said in a conference call with reporters.

“This is going to give folks five years of certainty,” Marshall said. “I think we can get it passed.”