Senate Ag Committee Advances Farm Bill

Duane Hovorka, IWLA Agriculture Program Director
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On June 13, the Senate Agriculture Committee voted 20-1 to advance S. 3042, the Senate version of the 2018 Farm Bill. The committee approved a package of 66 amendments that were agreed to in advance of the hearing and added another 7 amendments by voice vote during the hearing. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said that the full Senate will take up the bill in the next two weeks.

Farm Bill conservation programs are our nation’s largest source of funds to help farmers and ranchers be better stewards of the soil, water, and wildlife. Agriculture Committee approval is an important step in enacting a new Farm Bill before current programs expire September 30. The Senate bill reflects a bi-partisan approach and in many respects is much stronger when it comes to IWLA water quality and wildlife conservation priorities than the bill approved by the House Agriculture Committee in April.

Some highlights of the Senate bill:

Maintains Conservation Title Spending: Unlike the House bill, which would cut conservation spending, the Senate bill would maintain the current commitment of funding for conservation programs. Although the Senate bill does not increase conservation funding as the League has asked, the bill includes improvements to conservation programs that would help ensure funding will result in even more conservation benefits over the next five years.

Improves Crop Insurance: Taxpayers spend billions of dollars each year to subsidize crop insurance premiums for farmers and pay insurance companies to sell and service crop insurance policies. The Senate bill would give the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) authority to offer a “good farmer discount” to producers who implement practices that reduce the long-term risk of a crop loss, including planting cover crops and using more diverse crop rotations. The League has been a champion of this approach, which would be good for farmers, soil health, water quality, and taxpayers. The bill would also ensure that farmers who follow USDA recommendations for planting cover crops would not jeopardize their crop insurance coverage.

Increases Funding for Easements: The bill would increase funding for the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, providing $2.075 billion over 5 years for permanent and long-term easements to protect wetlands, native prairie, and other farmland from development. That is a slight increase from the $2.025 billion included in the 2014 Farm Bill, and less than the $2.5 billion ($500 million per year) included in the House bill. The Senate bill would also make the program more flexible and effective, such as by allowing landowners to donate a larger share of the value of their easement as part of the required “match” to obtain federal funds.

Increases CRP Acres: The bill would increase the size of the Conservation Reserve Program to 25 million acres (up from 24 million acres). It would also prioritize water quality measures – such as buffer strips, filter strips, and wetland protection – and wildlife practices designated as state priorities. The bill would fund the increased acres by reducing the cap on CRP rental rates paid to farmers at 88.5% of county dryland rental rates and eliminating incentive payments when crop prices are below long-term averages. The bill would also create a new conservation reserve easement option that would be available for expiring CRP contracts starting in 2029. In Committee, Senator John Thune (R-SD) offered but withdrew an amendment that would have increased CRP to 26.25 million acres but substantially reduced the rental rates for landowners re-enrolling in their 2nd or 3rd CRP contracts.

The House bill would add more acres of CRP, but the bill went 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 of the House approach would be a substantial shift away from being able to use CRP to address water quality problems in targeted watersheds where water pollution from farm runoff is the worst.

Maintains “Working Lands” Programs: The bill would continue the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), Conservation Stewardship Program, and Regional Conservation Partnership Program, which work in different ways to help farmers and ranchers be better stewards of land that remains in production. However, the Conservation Stewardship Program would be reduced by 12%, from 10 million acres to 8.8 million acres per year, and EQIP would be cut to $7.66 billion over 5 years, a 4.25% cut from the $8 billion included in the 2014 Farm Bill. Some of those funds would move to the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, which would see an increase of $100 million per year. An amendment added in Committee would increase the share of EQIP dollars earmarked for wildlife habitat to 10% from 5% in the current Farm Bill. The bill would provide added support for building soil health, including $15 million per year for a soil health demonstration pilot program.

Maintains Conservation Compliance and Sodsaver: The Senate bill maintains the basic requirements that farmers refrain from draining or filling wetlands and implement soil conservation plans on highly erodible land to be eligible for Farm Bill benefits – important protections. The bill also expands a Sodsaver provision that now helps protect native prairie in six states, allowing the governor of any other state to choose to offer Sodsaver coverage to farmers.

Other Provisions: The Senate bill largely avoids divisive provisions like those included in the House bill that would weaken the Clean Water Act, repeal the Clean Water Rule, remove a requirement that the Environmental Protection Agency consult with fish and wildlife experts before registering pesticides, reduce public input on national forest management decisions, and restrict state and local governments from regulating agricultural production to meet local needs. The Senate bill also avoids controversial provisions related to nutrition programs that were included in the House Farm Bill.

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