In September, news outlets reported that the House and Senate Agriculture Committees had agreed on a proposal to provide $28 billion to promote climate-smart agriculture practices on America’s farms and ranches, as part of a $3.5 trillion package of funding to address climate change, health care and education.
As Congress considers major new investments to rebuild America’s infrastructure and combat climate change, the Izaak Walton League has urged lawmakers to double funding for Farm Bill conservation programs. The proposal for $28 billion over five years would come close to doubling the current level of funding, which includes about $6.5 billion per year for the Farm Bill’s five major conservation programs, as well as the conservation operations money used by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) for field staff who provide planning and advice for farmers.
The proposal would focus the $28 billion on promoting climate-friendly farm and ranch practices, including:
- $9 billion for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program for incentives for farmers to adopt practices like planting winter cover crops, implementing better nutrient management and installing buffer strips. That would double the current size of the program.
- $7.5 billion for the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP), which funds partnerships that leverage state and private funds to address high-priority natural resource concerns in an area. The program lets project sponsors choose which conservation strategies will best address the problems in the area. $7.5 billion would be five times the current level of funding for RCPP.
- $4 billion for the Conservation Stewardship Program, which promotes a whole-farm systems approach to conservation. This amount would represent a doubling of current program funding.
- $1.5 billion for the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, which provides for the restoration of wetlands and prairies and the long-term protection of wetlands, prairies, and other farmland through conservation easements. That represents an increase of about 67 percent from current funding.
- $5 billion for a new cover crop initiative that would provide an annual payment to farmers who adopt the use of winter cover crops. Cover crops help rebuild healthy soils, store carbon in the soil, and reduce the need for chemical fertilizers, but they are currently planted on less than five percent of cropland acres.
- $600 million to help NRCS better measure the emissions reductions associated with conservation practices, which can vary widely depending on a farmer’s soil, climate, farming system, and management.
- $200 million for NRCS conservation operations so USDA can meet the growing demand by farmers and ranchers for conservation planning and advice. That represents just a five percent increase from the current NRCS budget.
Taken together, these proposed increases in conservation funding would represent the largest investment in farm and ranch conservation since the Soil Conservation Service was created in 1935 to respond to the Dust Bowl ravaging the Great Plains. The last time Congress significantly increased funding for farm and ranch conservation was two decades ago, in the 2002 Farm Bill.
Climate-friendly farm and ranch practices can provide benefits for our soil, air, woods, waters and wildlife, but they often require an investment of money, time and expertise. As Congress debates new investments in infrastructure and climate change mitigation, agriculture conservation provides an opportunity too important to pass up.
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