The House Agriculture Committee continued its review of the Farm Bill with a Sept. 20 hearing by the Conservation and Forestry Subcommittee to consider the conservation title of the 2018 Farm Bill. Witnesses shared their conservation priorities and offered grassroots suggestions on needed improvements to the title that continues to gain increasing attention.
The vast majority of witnesses testified to the need to encourage an approach that is voluntary and that is not a one-size-fits-all approach.
Michael Crowder, President of the National Association of Conservation Districts, wanted to reiterate a message to members. “Voluntary, locally-led, incentive-based conservation work.”
Technical assistance, planning and engineering, and financial assistance in the form of cost sharing or incentives, provide farmers with the knowledge and economic incentive to be able to bring about a change in their operation or maintain a practice of conservation, says Nicole Berg, National Wheat Association President of Growers and Washington state wheat farmer.
Berg shares that the 2018 Farm Bill maintained a strong commitment to voluntary, incentive-based conservation programs. Natural Resource Conservation Service programs continue to be oversubscribed, with less than half of all applicants receiving NRCS funding nationwide. Specifically, wheat growers applied with 7,500 contracts between 2018 and 2021, and 5,000 valid applications from wheat growers went unfunded.
Crowder adds that about seven in 10 farmers who want to invest in the long-term health of their farms through the use of conservation programs are sadly turned down. The Environmental Quality Incentives Program has been repeatedly noted as a “workhorse of conservation programs” and the need to continue investing in the program often most affected by oversubscriptions.
Iowa beef producer Shayne Wiese, who testified on behalf of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, said he was not turned down but never received a response to his request EQIP. Wiese currently operates Wiese & Sons: Good Doin’ Bulls with this older brother in West Central Iowa. Wiese & Sons are conservation advocates and use cover crops, CRPs, water filtration pads and erosion reduction practices as part of their overall commitment to environmental stewardship. .
“While the intent of EQIP is to make conservation funding and technical assistance accessible to all growers, barriers to entry often deter growers from using NRCS programs,” said Wiese. “Recently, I applied to receive cost-share funding from EQIP, but after months of waiting, I gave up and completed a water infrastructure project without USDA assistance. .”
Wiese says the EQIP funding sought was for water infrastructure during a drought for their livestock. As a fifth generation cattle rancher, he had access to land resources and capital to ‘bite the bullet’ and pay for the investment in water infrastructure without using EQIP funds. However, many other young farmers and ranchers would not be able to do so without the cost-sharing aid.
Wiese testified that CRP has the potential to provide significant environmental benefits, but currently fails to maximize its value. “Changes to the 2018 Farm Bill limit our ability to effectively manage CRP acreage with pasture,” he says.
He explains: “Grazing is a valuable tool to maximize carbon sequestration, but it is not a tool that we can use without penalty on CRP acreage. Livestock graze on mature, stagnant grasses and allow the growth of green, carbon-scavenging plants. Our ranch took land out of the CRP and recently transferred it to our rotational cattle grazing system. We have seen improvements in all pastures due to more grazing options.
Wiese answered several questions about the importance of allowing grazing on CRP soil, including from subcommittee chair Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va. Wiese notes that access to grazing on the CRP acreage will promote more opportunities for beginning herders to graze responsibly and provide existing pastures with more rest and recuperation during drought years. Additionally, grazing should be included as a mid-contract CRP management tool, he adds. “Cattle and other forms of livestock can and should be the sustainable solution to CRP acreage management,” he says.
He says the flexibility of grazing on CRP soil, even if not declared by emergency haymaking, provides flexibility for the operation. “The environment benefits, the grower benefits, and we benefit because we don’t have the stress of dealing with drought or running out of grass and having to feed very expensive hay.”
Berg suggested that Congress needs to improve the flexibility of conservation programs. She also says the NAWG wants to ensure that NRCS and local agricultural services agency staff can clearly articulate program changes so that farmers understand farm bill changes or other administrative changes.
Impact of recent conservation funding
In his opening remarks to the hearing, Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-California, a ranking member of the subcommittee, shared Republicans’ concerns about the $3.5 billion recently allocated by the USDA to fund partnerships for climate-smart products that “have no mandate”. , direction, or permission from Congress as to how to actually distribute it. In addition, the funding comes on top of the latest reconciliation plan, the Cut Inflation Act, which provided about $20 billion for conservation programs.
Rep. Glenn “GT” Thompson, R-Pa., and a senior member of the House Agriculture Committee, added that “these actions are not good for the long-term viability of these programs.” He also expressed concern about “earmarking all new funds just for climate rather than letting the locally driven process work.”
Thompson says, “We want the conservation title to work for the grower and not only help deliver environmental results, but also make good economic sense. We also need to make sure these programs are easy for producers to understand and access. We should look for ways to streamline and simplify our conservation programs.
Thompson says working lands will continue to be an important component of conservation programs and cautioned against prioritizing climate over any other natural resource concerns.