by Jeffrey Hunt
Although at first glance much of the conservation programs in the 2018 Farm Bill could be described as the status-quo, there is a definite shifting of priorities. There is increased focus on conservation practices like crop rotation and advanced grazing management, which are to support newly-prioritized soil and water quality. All conservation programs within the 2018 Farm Bill are expected to devote at least 10% of their funding towards water quality enhancements. Although the bill hasn’t been official scored by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), it is not expected to increase spending or add to the deficit.
The current bill boosts the maximum Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acreage to 27 million acres (a 3-million acre increase from the current 24 million). The increase is to be phased-in over the next five years. This expansion, while not as large as the increase in the original House bill, does not increase spending because county rental rates will be slightly reduced. Thus the increase in acreage is offset by a decrease in rental rates. General signups are to occur at least once every other year.
Of the 27 million acres projected in CRP, 8.6 million acres are devoted to continuous CRP signup, and are also phased-in through the next five years. The bill contains new priority acreage for grassland, which is to comprise a minimum of 2 million acres by the end of 2023.
Several programs under the CRP umbrella contain changes in the 2018 Farm Bill. The Farmable Wetlands Program meant to restore previously farmed wetlands and run through the CRP is reauthorized through 2023 and capped at 500,000 acres. The Clean Lakes, Estuaries, and Rivers (CLEAR) Initiative is anticipated to make up at least 40% of all continuous acreage in an effort to focus on water quality. Additionally, there will be a pilot program testing the feasibility of 30 year contracts within this program (a ‘CLEAR-30 contract). The Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) is not radically changed. Cost share payments will now be distributed as component elements of the practice are completed, and riparian buffers are now required to qualify for incentive payments. Lastly, the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) is given a dedicated funding stream of $300 million per year.
A couple of new programs are created to complement CRP. One is the establishment of the Soil Health and Income Protection Pilot Program, in which land is set aside to improve soil, water, and wildlife resources on the land. The rental rate within this program will be 50% of the county-wide annual rental rate, but will offer short-term rental contracts. The other is new ‘conservation easements’ in which parcels of land are permanently set-aside with some restrictions such as chemical use or mowing or degrading land.
The Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) is changed significantly but remains intact, which is an important note since the original House bill released over the summer officially repealed the program and subsumed most of its work into the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). Instead, funding is set at between $700 million to $1 billion (increasing from 2019-2023), regardless of acreage enrolled. Acreage caps and floors are removed and instead the money will be allocated more efficiently to prioritize cover crops, resource crop rotations, and advanced grazing management. There will be a “Grasslands Conservation Initiative” prioritizing grazing lands and improving soil, water, and wildlife. Perhaps most importantly, automatic renewals are eliminated to more efficiently target the aforementioned priorities.
The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) was not changed as wildly as in the original House bill from this summer. Instead, EQIP’s funding is bumped up to just over $2 billion, representing a compromise between prior House and Senate bills and a 16% bump relative to the prior Farm Bill. Soil health planning, resource conserving crop rotation, and conservation planning assessments are all now eligible practices to be covered by EQIP. There is minor shifting in set-asides in that livestock set asides fall from 60-50% and wildlife set asides increase from 5-10%.