Roberts aims for farm bill compromise to keep conservation programs

Source: Marc Heller, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, September 6, 2018

Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts said yesterday he’s still looking for a compromise that can maintain two major conservation programs in the 2018 farm bill.

“It isn’t a matter of either-or,” the Kansas Republican said in reference to the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), which face potential realignment in the final farm bill.

“They’re both good programs. They serve a different clientele,” Roberts said after a House-Senate conference committee met for the first time on the five-year legislation.

“We’ll have to strike some kind of balance there,” Roberts said.

The CSP is the country’s biggest working-lands conservation program, in terms of acreage. But even with more than 72 million acres enrolled, it’s fallen short of congressional goals; around 60 percent of participants re-enroll, although the Agriculture Department revamped it two years ago to encourage more participation.

The House version of the farm bill (H.R. 2) would eliminate CSP, wrapping much of its funding into EQIP. Proponents of EQIP have praised the move, as did some lawmakers on the conference committee.

Both programs encourage farmers to take measures such as reducing tillage, planting cover crops and installing fences to keep livestock away from streams. CSP calls for signing up entire farms, rather than pinpointing problems in certain locations.

Among the criticisms: CSP pays farmers for conservation measures they’re already following. It should be more targeted toward new practices, said Craig Cox, senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources at the Environmental Working Group.

The program has also been limited by budget cuts, as well as by the 2014 farm bill, which reduced the number of acres that could be added each year from 12.8 million acres to 10 million acres.

In Kansas, Roberts said, EQIP was especially helpful in recovery from grassland fires. But in eastern Kansas, CSP is used more heavily, he said.

Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) said combining CSP into EQIP would make for more “flexible and scalable” conservation over several years. The House approach, he said, would create a program with greater reach across the United States.

The House bill would create new “stewardship contracts” within EQIP, although the details would be left to the Department of Agriculture through formal rulemaking.

Other lawmakers, such as Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.), pushed against the idea. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, which is lobbying to save CSP, has said Minnesota in particular benefits from CSP.

Making ‘hard choices’

Yesterday’s conference committee meeting didn’t shed light on how lawmakers might reach a compromise. Finding a middle ground may be challenging, conservation stakeholders said, because the House and Senate versions take such contrasting approaches.

At the meeting, the panel’s 56 members took turns making speeches that reinforced the contrasting approaches on nutrition programs, forestry and environmental protections.

Still, House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway (R-Texas) said he believes leaders can reach an agreement in time to renew the farm bill before the current law expires on Sept. 30.

“I heard nobody say today that they wanted an extension,” Conaway said.

Conaway said he was waiting for an answer from Senate counterparts on a proposal he gave them last week, which would make changes to the House positions on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program as well as other issues. Top leaders from both sides met for about two hours in the afternoon, following the conference meeting, he said later.

“We had meaningful conversations about all the differences between the two bills, and I think we’re making progress,” Conaway said. He said none of the titles in the bill has been settled and that some of the conversations were “difficult.”

The ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson, said leaders were awaiting cost estimates from the Congressional Budget Office on proposals that could mark middle ground between the House and Senate. Those numbers could be in hand by today, he said.

The most partisan issue is SNAP, with Democrats rejecting House Republicans’ call for enhanced employment requirements. Conaway said he’s been consulting with House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who’s steeped in social program reform.

He declined to share details, saying he didn’t want to negotiate through reporters.

“We’re going to get this thing done,” Conaway said. “The best way is for the four of us to make the hard choices.”