More details trickle out about farm bill conservation language

Source: Marc Heller and Cecelia Smith-Schoenwalder, E&E News reporters • Posted: Friday, December 7, 2018

The compromise version of the 2018 farm bill due for release in the next several days would boost the Conservation Reserve Program by 3 million acres and keep another popular conservation program alive, but not without sacrifice.

That’s the assessment from House Agriculture ranking member Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) and groups following the negotiations with a particular eye to farmland conservation.

Peterson told reporters in Minnesota yesterday the forthcoming legislation — negotiated by top House and Senate agriculture committee leaders — is largely a status-quo proposition compared with the 2014 farm bill, which expired Oct. 1. The House appears likely to take it up next week, with the Senate to follow the same week or the next.

Farm groups and sportsmen’s organizations have been watching for details on the conservation programs, which Peterson said turned into a major fight in the closing weeks of talks among him, House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway (R-Texas), Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) and ranking Democrat Debbie Stabenow of Michigan.

That’s because, with limited money for conservation programs, some initiatives were pitted against each other as lawmakers looked for ways to expand or save priorities.

Peterson’s comments at a meeting at an airport in his congressional district provided the most detail that’s trickled out about the five-year bill.

Minnesota news organizations said he told reporters a House provision to eliminate the Conservation Stewardship Program has been jettisoned — although farm groups warned it’s likely to be cut — and that boosting the acreage cap on the CRP from 24 million to 27 million acres would be paid largely by reducing rates to 90 percent of a county’s market rent.

Full details on the funding for the various conservation programs — including trade-offs within and between programs — won’t be available until the Congressional Budget Office releases a score on the conference report, within a few days.

The bill also covers farm programs such as subsidized crop insurance, as well as nutrition and rural development efforts and forestry.

Roberts and Stabenow declined to comment on specifics yesterday, saying the CBO score could come Monday. Results could force lawmakers to make last-minute changes, although Stabenow said she’s “very confident” in the bill.

“Unfortunately, it’s the same answer, which is CBO, CBO, CBO,” Stabenow said. “It’s just a big bill. It’s a lot of peaches.”

One issue is whether the CSP — the nation’s biggest conservation program by acreage — would be cut in order to boost other programs like the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. Some groups say they expect so.

All of the programs help farmers adopt techniques such as reduced tillage that preserve soil quality, cut down on runoff and prevent erosion into waterways, among other benefits.

In any event, Peterson said, farmers wouldn’t have much incentive to put good farmland into the CRP, because they would make less than market rent.

The CRP provision falls short of the House proposal for 29 million acres but would also pay farmers more than the 80 percent payment rate that lawmakers there had endorsed.

News of an increase in CRP acreage is welcome, said Jim Inglis, director of government affairs for Pheasants Forever, which favors the program for creating hunting grounds. “It sounds promising,” he said, adding that the organization hasn’t seen the compromise measure.

The National Farmers Union expects conservation programs to reflect the give-and-take of House-Senate negotiations, said Matt Perdue, a government relations representative for the group. “I think we’re feeling better about the conservation title than maybe a month ago.

“First of all, we have to get a bill done,” Perdue said, adding that, at a minimum, the measure preserves a safety net for farmers at a time of falling farm incomes. “This bill isn’t a home run,” he said.