Democrats unveil $28B in conservation funding

USDA corn field
Farmers could qualify for additional CSP, EQIP and RCCP funds if reconciliation advances across finish line.

As the House and Senate Democrats continue to formulate their priorities for their $3.5 trillion spending bill, details finally were unveiled on the $28 billion in conservation spending. As previously called for by agricultural groups, the proposal invests additional money in farm bill conservation programs farmers are already familiar with that are oversubscribed.

“We are leading the way on helping farmers tackle the climate crisis with a historic investment of $28 billion in the Build Back Better Budget for climate-smart agriculture—the largest investment in conservation since the Dust Bowl,” says Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich. “Our conservation programs are proven and popular with farmers, ranchers and foresters. This will make a huge impact on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and is the equivalent of taking over 142 million cars off the road.”

According to the details released by Senate Democrats, the $28 billion in spending includes:

  • $9 billion for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program to specifically increase funding for practices that help producers implement and expand conservation practices on their operations like cover cropping, nutrient management and buffers that safeguard resources and sequester carbon in their soil and trees. EQIP is currently oversubscribed 3:1, which is why it is receiving the most significant investment.
  • $7.5 billion for the Regional Conservation Partnerships Program, which leverages private and outside investments to support locally led conservation.
  • $4 billion for the Conservation Security Program, which focuses on whole-farm conservation systems.
  • $1.5 billion for the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program to ensure that land in easements is used in a way that protects soil and water, while maintaining its viability as farmland.
  • $5 billion for a new cover crop initiative at the Farm Service Agency that provides farmers an alternative to get started with this critical conservation practice.
  • $200 million for Conservation Technical Assistance so USDA has the resources needed to deliver these resources farmers.
  • $600 million for additional measuring of GHG benefits of conservation practice adoption to underscore farmers’ leadership in addressing the climate crisis.

Senate Democrats say hundreds of farm, food and environmental advocates, including the Food and Ag Climate Alliance, more than 200 members of the climate conservation coalition, companies and private citizens weighed in with input during the process.

House Agriculture Committee Ranking Member Glenn “GT” Thompson, R-Pa., says, “This bill is an attack on the farm bill process by extending narrow, partisan priorities beyond their expiration while leaving production agriculture hanging by the vine. This is what happens when congressional committees are held hostage by party leaders who have zero interest in protecting the individuals and communities who feed, clothe and fuel this great nation."

Related: House Ag Committee delays vote on $94B in new ag spending

John Kran, Michigan Farm Bureau national legislative counsel, says they “appreciate the senator’s focus on investment in programs popular with farmers such as EQIP and CSP, and her support for working lands programs that help farmers continue to produce a sustainable food supply for Michigan and the world.”

Demand for conservation on 13.8 million acres goes unmet because of inadequate funding every year. Additionally, current programs meet only a fraction of the need for voluntary conservation on the landscape, according to a letter to House and Senate leadership from over 200 farmer and conservation groups. “That’s why we are urging Congress to double the investment in farm bill conservation programs and to ramp up conservation technical assistance funding in a corresponding manner,” the letter states.

Over-enrollment in CSP, EQIP

According to data from USDA, between 2010 and 2020, just 31% of farmers who applied to the EQIP and only 42% of farmers who applied to CSP nationwide were awarded contracts. Over the span of 10 years, EQIP turned down 946,459 contracts and CSP denied 146,425 contracts, at least partially for lack of funds, according to Michael Happ, program associate for climate and rural communities at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in a new report: Closed out: How U.S. farmers are denied access to conservation programs.

These numbers vary widely by state, but some of the lowest approval rates occurred in major agriculture states. The report found that nationally, over the last decade, 69% EQIP applications and 58% of CSP applicants were rejected. The trend appears to be worsening. Over the last five years, the numbers are close to 70% and 63%, respectively.

“The whole farm approach supported by CSP and the practices supported by EQIP help farmers reduce greenhouse gas emissions, sequester carbon, and adapt to emerging and extreme climate-related changes,” explains Happ.

Traditionally, EQIP has provided cost share assistance for targeted conservation projects on farms. Many of these practices, like buffer strips, multi-story cropping, wetland enhancement and others can help mitigate some of the effects of climate change for farmers, acting as sort of an agroecological insurance against extreme weather events, Happ explains.  

CSP is traditionally considered the next step for EQIP contract holders. While EQIP is considered a “one-and-done” cost share program, CSP is meant to work with farmers to implement larger conservation goals on their farm. Happ explains among these goals are cropland soil health/sustainability, fish and wildlife habitat, water quality and grazing land conservation.

Path forward

While speaking in an interview with ABC News on Sunday morning, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., says House and Senate Democrat leaders continue to fine tune what the final price tag will be on the Build Back Better package in the reconciliation process. This process to pass the budget only requires a simple majority to pass and is not subject to the filibuster.

Pelosi says although each chamber approved up to $3.5 trillion for the package, she recognized that final price tag may need to come down to obtain the needed votes. She encouraged members in the Senate and House who are not in full agreement to not focus on numbers and dollars, but to talk about values.

“Everybody overwhelmingly supports the vision of the president,” Pelosi says of all the Democrat caucus. She says issues such as the climate crisis can be included in those priorities that need to be funded so that the final package represents all of those priorities at a cost “where we can find common ground.”

Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced a framework for how to pay for the bill last Thursday, but again stopped short of sharing exactly those pay-for options could impact the policy until the priorities could be identified that would dictate the final dollar amounts.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition has argued that if the topline $3.5 trillion is reduced to appease concerns from moderate Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., and Sen. Kristen Sinema, D-Ariz., agriculture should be spared from reductions. Farm programs, including conservation programs essential to addressing climate change, are routinely already cut by approximately 7% annually due to previous extensions of mandatory sequestration of farm programs as offsets in previous legislation. 

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