Inside Washington: More conservation funding criticism ahead

Environmental Working Group calls for more restrictions if producers want federal conservation funding.

Issues such as the Des Moines (Iowa) Water Works case and Toledo, Ohio, algae blooms have increased the public’s scrutiny of farmers and their role with water quality and other environmental issues. The discussion is only going to ramp up in the years ahead.

U.S. taxpayers have spent $29.8 billion on U.S. Department of Agriculture conservation efforts over the past decade and $40 billion in payments to farm owners since 1995. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) is pushing for more accountability to come along with that funding as Congress begins debate on the next farm bill.

EWG released a new Conservation Database that offers a detailed look at county, state and national use of conservation funding, as well as the conservation practices themselves.

The data, obtained through 28 Freedom of Information Act requests over seven years, show that farmers and landowners have received $29.8 billion in payments since 2005 through four critical conservation initiatives funded by Congress and administered by USDA:

  • Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program, $318 million.
  • Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), $20 billion.
  • Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), $7.4 billion.
  • Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), $2.2 billion.

EWG said one of the most important points revealed by digging into the database is that these programs are spread way too thin. The subsidies would go further and do much more if they were strategically focused to get the most effective practices in the right places and go after the most urgent threats to public health and the environment.

“It's more than fair to expect farmers and landowners to do more to protect the environment in return for generous farm and insurance subsidies -- a total of $14 billion in 2014 alone and $265 billion since 1995,” EWG said.

Between 2007 and 2014, landowners chose to take 15.8 million acres out of CRP as crop prices boomed. That added up to at least $8.9 billion in rental payments that created no lasting change, EWG added.

EWG is pushing for a “stronger conservation compliance provision” as Congress drafts the new farm bill. Conservation compliance, enacted in 1985, required farmers to take simple steps to protect soil and wetlands in exchange for payments from farm subsidy, conservation and other USDA programs.

During the last farm bill writing, there was plenty of resistance from farm groups to tying conservation compliance requirements to crop insurance. In the end, it was attached, but a compromise allowed for some premium assistance while a farmer is out of compliance, if conditions were met.

Voluntary vs. mandatory

The debate over voluntary versus mandated conservation practices will continue to pick up, and EWG is calling for fewer voluntary practices and more focus on those that work.

Craig Cox, senior vice president for agricultural and natural resources, argued that there is no limit to creativity if you create a basic standard of what farmers should do and build from there. For instance, requiring vegetation between crop ways and waterways and keeping bumper strips and terraces in place goes a long way in preserving the soil and water. He suggested that there should be some basic standard level as part of each farmer’s responsibility.

Since 1997, EQIP has let farmers choose among 350 individual practices. Since 2010, CSP has allowed farmers to pick any of 200 individual enhancements. “It's far too easy to implement these programs cafeteria-style, letting farmers pick the measures they like best, with too little regard for which remedies would do the most good,” EWG argued. “Instead, USDA conservation programs should spend money only on practices that are the most effective in curtailing the most important causes of serious public health and quality-of-life threats. The choices offered to farmers should be limited to a much smaller set of practices and enhancements.”

However, having those choices, and allowing farmers to evaluate what works best on their farm, is part of the beauty of the increasing voluntary efforts. What is beneficial for one farmer or land type may not be for another.

EWG has a point that conservation dollars should be concentrated on cooperative projects designed to get landowners to collaborate in deploying the right conservation practices in the right places. Too many conservation dollars are spread across the landscape, with little strategic effort to connect the dots.

Congress attempted to correct this problem by creating the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) in the last farm bill. “Time will tell if the RCPP is the right approach, but in the meantime, federal policy should focus more on coordinating conservation practices,” EWG said.

In my discussions with Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) chief Jason Weller, that is exactly at the heart of what NRCS is trying to do in the countryside by leveraging knowledge with partners and businesses to let science guide where the money will be spent most effectively.

Farmers do want to help preserve their land, and there’s a growing desire to do the right thing, but in this current economic down cycle, producers may not be able to pay as much out of their own pocket to preserve and enhance the land as needed.

So, will Congress be smarter with the money it doles out? How will this affect your operation?

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