The Conservation title provides assistance in the form of payments and technical support in order to help farmers, ranchers, and landowners utilize conservation practices in their operations. By incentivizing use of conservation practices with these voluntary programs, this title aims to protect and improve water, soil, wildlife, and air.
Overall mandatory funding for conservation programs increased from 2014, marking the Farm Bill’s commitment to restoration and protection of agricultural land.
The two main programs under Title II are the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). The total funding for these two programs were reduced — individually, though, the decrease in funding of CSP allowed for a slight increase in funding for EQIP. EQIP focuses on helping farmers and ranchers plan, install, and maintain practices on their farms that help conserve natural resources such as water and wildlife habitats by sharing the cost. The 2018 Farm Bill mandates an increase in funding incrementally each year, provides higher rates for particularly good practices, increases wildlife allocations and decreases livestock allocations, and expands Conservation Innovation Grants to encourage conservation.
Although budget allocations were decreased from 60% to 50%, the 2018 Farm Bill failed to limit funding for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). A large portion of EQIP funding is going to huge CAFOs to build waste lagoons and treatment facilities, practices which are often to the detriment of our environment and our health.
The Conservation Stewardship Program is more comprehensive than EQIP in helping fund environmentally-friendly land stewardship — rather than helping implement specific practices, farmers can enroll their entire operation in the program. Funding for CSP was redistributed to other conservation programs in the 2018 Farm Bill, and the acreage cap for the program was replaced with a funding cap to accommodate the lower mandatory funding limit. CSP revisions in the 2018 Farm Bill also included grassland conservation and organic initiatives. While the organic initiative rewards farmers with organic practices, the grassland conservation initiative offers the one-time opportunity for farmers consistently growing grass on commodity base acres to enroll in CSP. Since these acres used to be paid under the Commodities title, this effectively puts a greater financial burden on CSP and saves Title I funds for other uses.
EQIP and CSP payments must be available to beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers to help them grow sustainably, with both farm growth and environmental protection in mind. The 2018 Farm Bill ensured that beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers could receive 50% of their payments up front rather than making them pay all costs out of pocket.
Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) payments amount to the largest portion of Title II mandatory funding by dollars. This program is a voluntary conservation program through which the Farm Service Agency pays farmers to take environmentally sensitive land out of production for 10-15 years, and it was expanded in the 2018 Farm Bill by increasing enrollment. However, this higher enrollment cost was offset by decreasing the payments made to participants. CRP holds a number of important roles, including continuing enrollment, permanent or long-term conservation, and the CRP Transition Incentives Program (CRP-TIP). CRP-TIP helps connect retiring landowners with acres enrolled in CRP to buyers by providing those retiring landowners with extra years of CRP payments when they sell their land to beginning or socially disadvantaged farmers.
CRP acreage limits were increased incrementally on an annual basis in the 2018 Farm Bill. New pilot programs were also added, including Clean Lakes, Estuaries, and Rivers and Soil Health and Income Protection Pilot (CLEAR 30), which “reserves 40 percent of total continuous CRP acreage for water quality beneficial conservation buffer practices.” Funding for CRP-TIP also increased, with a set-aside of $5 million for beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers.
Agricultural Conservation Easement Programs (ACEP) provide easements to landowners of agricultural land and wetland reserves. These easements ensure the land is protected and restored. Funding for ACEP increased in the 2018 Farm Bill, enabling more of the high demand for the program to be fulfilled. However, requirements for ACEP were relaxed, requiring conservation plans only for land designated “highly erodible.”
The Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) was reauthorized after it was established in the 2014 Farm Bill to help farmers use conservation strategies in their region or watershed. This program allows producers to enter standalone contracts and develop their own strategies for conservation. Funding for RCPP was increased from $100 million annually to $300 million annually, and removes the requirement that 7 percent of funding from other Title II programs be allocated to RCPP.
Although the USDA reports the number of acres and operations enrolled in the programs under the Conservation title, it fails to report the effectiveness of the programs without the authority and funding to collect and assess environmental data. This is essential in future farm bills to ensure that program funding is meaningful and effective.