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House Agriculture Committee Advances Farm Bill

Duane Hovorka, IWLA Agriculture Program Director
farm in PA_photo credit Scott Bauer USDA-ARS

On April 18, the House Agriculture Committee voted to advance its version of a 2018 Farm Bill on a 26-20 vote. Twenty-six Republicans voted for the bill and 20 Democrats voted against it.

Only a few, mostly minor amendments were added to the bill during the Committee markup session. One would restrict states from regulating the import of ag products produced in another state, such as California rules that restrict the sale of chickens based on cage size used to house them.

Several Committee members expressed disappointment with the reduced Conservation Title spending in the bill. Several also mentioned their displeasure with the elimination of the Conservation Stewardship Program. Much of the discussion focused on the Nutrition Title, reflecting differences over proposals to change requirements to obtain food stamps.

Agriculture Committee Chair Mike Conaway said he hopes to move the bill to the full House for debate in May. The House plans to be in recess April 28 through May 6, so we don’t expect the bill to come before the full House before the week of May 7.

Farm Bill conservation programs are our nation’s largest source of funds to help farmers and ranchers be better stewards of the soil, waters, and wildlife. The House bill is a mixed bag when it comes to IWLA water and wildlife conservation priorities.

Increases Needed Funding for Wetland and Farmland Easements

The bill restores funding for the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program to $500 million per year, providing additional funds for permanent and long-term easements that will protect wetlands, native prairie, and other farmland from development. That would be a significant “win” for wildlife, wetlands and water quality.

Sacrifices Water Quality to Add CRP Acres

Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) provisions would cap CRP rental rates paid to farmers at 80% of county dryland rental rates, reducing the payment landowners would get when enrolling land in the program. When landowners re-enroll, they would get even less with each subsequent contract. The bill would eliminate incentive payments and reduce the cost-share paid to landowners that reimburses them for a portion of the cost of planting vegetation on the land enrolled. The bill would use those savings to add 5 million acres to the program.

We think the CRP provisions go too far in sacrificing incentives needed to enroll landowners in high-value, partial-field practices such as buffer strips, filter strips, wetland restoration, and windbreaks. We fear the result would be a substantial shift away from being able to use the CRP to address water quality problems in targeted watersheds where water pollution from ag sources is the worst.

Sacrifices Important Stewardship Provisions By Folding CSP Into EQIP

The bill would eliminate the Conservation Stewardship Program, which rewards high-level conservation systems. It would instead provide additional funds for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and allow for “stewardship agreements” under EQIP. Unfortunately, the new EQIP stewardship provisions fail to include the most significant benefits of CSP, such as the whole farm approach, the requirement to achieve minimum levels of conservation, and exclusion of large feedlot lagoons and newly broken out land from program eligibility.

Maintains Conservation Compliance

The bill maintains the basic requirement that farmers refrain from draining or filling wetlands and implement a conservation plan on highly erodible soil to be eligible for Farm Bill benefits, an important protection. However, the bill includes a troubling provision that requires the U.S. Department of Agriculture to exempt some small wetlands from that protection, which could add red tape to NRCS enforcement of Swampbuster.

Less Conservation Title Spending

The Congressional Budget Office analysis released April 13 says that the bill, as introduced, would result in a $795-million reduction over 10 years in spending under the Conservation Title of the Farm Bill. The 2014 Farm Bill cut the Conservation Title by $4 billion, and annual cuts by Congress reduced spending even more. Given the huge need and demand for Farm Bill conservation programs, these additional cuts are a big concern. 

After more than 100 public hearings over three years, House Agriculture Committee consideration of the bill was an important step in the process of writing a new Farm Bill. The full House of Representatives could take up the bill in May. We expect the Senate Agriculture Committee to consider its version of a new Farm Bill in the coming weeks as well.