by Alicia Claire Lloyd
Following numerous continuing resolutions, in early May, Congress finally agreed on a budget package for Fiscal Year 2017. The budget agreement contained numerous wins for sustainable agriculture and the programs that support conservation practices that are so important to protecting and restoring Missouri soil and water quality. Congress’ ability to reach consensus on conservation support despite the current anti-spending focus in DC speaks to the bi-partisan and cross-sector support for the preservation of our natural resources intricately tied to land use and agricultural production. Prior to the budget consensus, MCE conducted direct outreach to Missouri senators and representatives urging their support for conservation programs. This outreach included sending an appropriations request to Senator Blunt who serves on the Senate Agricultural Appropriations Committee. Additionally, along with over 200 allies, MCE sent a letter to Congressional appropriators calling for full funding for programs like CSP, EQIP, the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, and Agricultural Conservation Easement Program. Following the good news that Congress reached consensus on an omnibus budget package for FY17 which largely protected conservation funds, MCE, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, and a plethora of conservation groups formally expressed our appreciation in a follow up “thank you” letter to congressional appropriators while urging the same commitment to natural resources and agricultural land stewardship in the months and years to come. While funding levels for many important programs were preserved this time, we face a challenging road to maintain conservation supports in FY18 and the next Farm Bill.
MCE and allies throughout the Mississippi River basin were relieved to know that the funds that support land stewardship and improve soil and water health in our state and region will continue to be available for the remainder of the fiscal year. Some highlights of MCE priority programs from the budget package follow.
The Conservation Stewardship Program offsets costs to farmers for implementing advanced conservation best management practices on their productive farmland. CSP avoided cuts to funding over 10 million acres of enrolled land across the US. Missouri landowners are enrolled in over 3,000 CSP contracts which predominantly support cropland and livestock environmental enhancement practices.
Despite the general good news, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program suffered an 11% or $181 million reduction in funding for FY17. EQIP provides support for sustainable agriculture on productive lands. In 2015, Missouri landowners entered into over 2,000 EQIP contracts for practices such as improved crop and livestock production. Nutrient management and fencing livestock out of waterways are two of the most common practices for EQIP practices in Missouri and the number one resource concern is water quality.
CONSERVATION TECHNICAL ASSISTANCE (CTA) INCREASES
Conservation Technical Assistance is incredibly important to help farmers and ranchers implement best management practices on their land. Nationally, the omnibus budget amount for USDA’s Conservation Operations, which funds CTA, was increased from $850.9 million to $864.5 million.
THE ROAD AHEAD
The road ahead for sustainable agriculture funding presents numerous challenges. The president’s budget request foreshadows an impending, unprecedented struggle to maintain support for these important conservation programs. Rural communities and independent farmers will face drastic threats to federal program support if anything close to the proposed budget cuts comes to fruition. MCE, as part of the Mississippi River Network and National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, will continue to work as a state-level liaison advocating for the preservation and continued funding of Farm Bill conservation programs in the upcoming budget appropriations process for FY18 and in the next Farm Bill. See the letter MCE and other groups sent to Congressional appropriators thanking them for their support for agricultural conservation in the final agriculture appropriations legislation for FY17. Our hope, expressed in the letter, is that our representatives continue to ensure necessary funding for these critical conservation programs next fiscal year and into the next full Farm Bill.