September 27, 2021

House and Senate leaders have included $28 billion in the 2021 Budget Reconciliation Bill specifically to tackle the backlog of farmers seeking US Department of Agriculture ‘conservation assistance’ for efforts to address the climate emergency.

The move has been welcomed by the Environmental Working Group, a non-profit organization focused on achieving a healthier environment and healthier living. “This is the biggest investment in agricultural conservation programmes since the Dust Bowl,” commeted EWG’s senior vice president for government affairs Scott Faber.

The organisation described the proposal as “historic” especially as, after rising steadily in the past, farm conservation spending has levelled off in recent years.

The $28 billion budget – a small part of a $3.5 trillion bill package – would provide funding through a series of initiatives. They include: the USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentives Programme (EQIP); the Conservation Stewardship Programme (CSP); and the Regional Cooperative Conservation Programme (RCCP), with all of the new spending helping farmers reduce greenhouse gas emissions or store carbon in the ground.

However, the American Farm Bureau Federation looks like it could oppose the bill according to Progressive Farmer. President Zippy Duvall noted that the current version of the bill which would spend $3.5 trillion over 10 years would also raise taxes by $2 trillion. While the agriculture section of the bill is strong, Farm Bureau has concerns that extra taxes would be burdensome for farmers.

US EWG Experts Scott Faber
EWG’s Scott Faber: “The budget reconciliation bill provides a once-in-a-generation chance to make better farmland stewardship our top priority,”

A big opportunity for US farming

“The budget reconciliation bill provides a once-in-a-generation chance to make better farmland stewardship, not unlimited subsidies, our top priority,” Faber said. “Farmland conservation practices that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and store carbon also have the added benefit of reducing the amount of farm pollution that is fouling our drinking water.”

According to EWG, most indicators show that the problems posed by farm pollution are getting worse. These include toxic algal blooms, high nitrate levels in drinking water and low-oxygen ‘dead zones’ caused by nutrients and chemicals applied to farmland continuing to be washed into rivers, lakes and bays.

Although Congress made important reforms in the 2018 Farm Bill, spending on conservation programmes did not increase enough to meet farmer demand. Many farmers and ranchers offering to share the cost of conservation practices like buffer strips and cover crops have not been given the federal funding they need.

According to its own recent data, the USDA:

  • This year turned away 87,163 farmers with valid applications for conservation funding through EQIP
  • This year turned away 20,641 farmers with valid applications for conservation funding through CSP
  • In the past two years turned away more than 100 proposals offered through RCPP
  • Last year turned away more than 5,000 farmers offering to enroll about 420,000 acres of marginal land into the Conservation Reserve Programme (CRP).

Reducing a big funding backlog

“Thousands of other farmers have simply stopped seeking funds after being turned away by the USDA again and again,” Faber noted. “The unfunded annual backlog for EQIP, CSP and RCPP is more than $2 billion and it could cost an additional $2 billion to enroll the acres offered into CRP.”

The increased conservation spending provided in the bill will help reduce the backlog of farmers waiting for conservation assistance. “And it will help protect our drinking water supplies, provide more habitat for wildlife, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, lead to more carbon being stored in the ground and help our farms prepare to better withstand the effects of extreme weather caused by the climate crisis,” Faber said.

EWG pointed out, however, that spending was only one part of the solution. “We must also spend smarter,” said Faber. “Extensive analysis of conservation spending shows the government isn’t doing enough to ensure that participating farmers adopt the right practices in the right places.” Conservation funds are often used for on-farm infrastructure improvement projects and practices that can benefit farmers more than the environment.

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