Now Not the Time to Cut Conservation Funding

DC Dialogue

Coalition asks Congress to put high priority on funding critical conservation programs at the current baseline level of $6.5B.

Published on: September 30, 2011

If the farm bill goes how the latest appropriations processes have gone down, conservation funding will take a significant hit.

A national coalition of 56 policy and advocacy organizations is urging Congress to preserve funding for essential U.S. Department of Agriculture conservation programs and to take additional steps to enhance soil, water quality and wildlife on agricultural land. The coalition outlined a set of key principles that lawmakers should observe as they write the Conservation Title of the 2012 farm bill and seek ways to trim the federal deficit.

The 56 coalition members are asking Congress to:

  • Put a high priority on funding critical conservation programs at the current baseline level of $6.5 billion a year.

  • Strengthen and enforce provisions that require farmers to implement basic conservation practices in return for farm subsidies and extend them to insurance subsidies.

  • Target conservation dollars where the opportunities for conservation and environmental outcomes are greatest.

  • Streamline existing programs by reducing unnecessary administrative burdens and ramp up their effectiveness by linking payments to performance and focusing more on whole-farm and whole-ranch conservation systems.

  • Ensure that all segments of the farming community – women, minorities and beginning farmers – have access to funding and technical assistance.

“It would be a real mistake to back off of conservation funding,” says Otto Doering, agricultural economist at Purdue University.

With $7 corn and $14 beans, farmers have every economic incentive to push the land. “Conservation programs on working lands are the saving grace for the next generation to make sure we don’t push the land too hard,” he says.

“The public and the conservation community are sending a unified message to Capitol Hill: the worthy goals of deficit reduction and fiscal responsibility must not be an excuse to reduce support for conservation. As a matter of national security, it is imperative that we maintain our robust investment in conservation and simultaneously work to make the conservation programs smarter and more efficient,” said Jon Scholl, president of the American Farmland Trust and one of the signees of the letter to Congress.

“Chronically underfunded conservation programs can’t stand up to the pressure we are putting on our land and water,” said Craig Cox, senior vice president for agricultural and natural resources at the Environmental Working Group. “The progress farmers have made is real, but pressing problems remain unaddressed; we will lose the ground we have gained if Congress fails to ensure that conservation intensifies in lock-step with production.”

The best way may be to provide performance-based payments that reward farmers for environmental outcomes, not just steps taken. This is already being piloted in Iowa at local watershed-level with great success.

Another way to tie environmental improvements to federal funding would be to attach cross-compliance of conservation with crop insurance. “Conservation compliance so far has related to erosion, sod-buster and swamp buster. It has been watered down significantly since the 80s when it was first instituted,” Doering says. “If crop insurance is to become a major vehicle for support, then compliance should be part of that contract between the public and farmers. Initially, conservation compliance was required for just about any program benefit a farmer received, so what we would be doing is reattaching it to crop and revenue insurance.”

The Conservation Reserve Program is another program that likely will need to be reviewed in the upcoming discussion. Doering says it will take some courage to evaluate which lands are actually moderately productive land and not renew those contracts.

Today’s 32 million CRP acres isn’t justified in light of the current budget situation. But a well-targeted area of 16-25 million acres might serve a true public purpose if wildlife, erosion control and water quality benefits could meet a cost benefit criteria for the land. 

The 2012 Farm Bill will encompass a wide array of programs affecting the farming industry, nutrition programs and rural development. Congress is scheduled to finalize the legislation next year, but the Congressional Super Committee is expected to make recommendations in the coming weeks that will likely impact the bill’s conservation provisions.
 
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